I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill has a simple aim: to ensure that every child in our society has the best possible start in life through the opportunities that flow from growing up in a stable and loving family. When children cannot live with their birth parents, I believe that society shares a responsibility to ensure that each child's life circumstances do not then limit their life chances. A kind and loving family is the rock on which society discharges that responsibility.
Adoption can mean a new start in life for many children, in particular children who have been in care. As every hon. Member knows, the opportunity to grow up in a stable family environment has not always been available to looked-after children who, for one reason or another, cannot live with their natural families. Adoption has too often been considered a last resort for those children when it should have been considered as the first response.
Not only the children have lost out, because society as a whole has paid a high price for that failure. At any one time, local councils look after nearly 60,000 children. More than six out of 10 leave care at 16 without a single qualification. Almost four in 10 male prisoners under 21 have been looked after at some stage in their lives. A quarter of people sleeping rough on the streets of London have been in care. That is not a failure of the child in care; it is a failure of the system of care, yet research has constantly shown over many years how adoption can overcome many of those problems.
Children adopted when they are more than six months old generally make good progress throughout childhood and into adulthood. They do considerably better than children who remained in the care system throughout most of their childhood. For those reasons, the Government are determined that more children in care should benefit from the improved life chances afforded by adoption.
By 2005, over the level of adoptions in 1999–2000, we aim for at least a 40 per cent. increase in the number of looked-after children who find adoptive parents. To achieve or exceed that target, we must fundamentally change the adoption system. Quite simply, it is letting down too many of our most vulnerable children.
Children stay in the care system far longer than they should. Almost 30,000 have been in care continuously for two years or more, and, too often, despite the best intentions of all those involved in the care system, they end up being passed from pillar to post. Nearly one in five looked-after children have three or more placements with different families in a single year. Some have six or more. These, remember, are precisely the children who already have a troubled history of family instability.
I appreciate the Secretary of State giving way so early in his speech. I know that social workers and others have had difficulties, but is there not also a mindset that might have to be changed?
A friend of mine adopted a second child, having taken a long time to adopt the first. The second child was allocated after doing well with the family, but three weeks or so later it was discovered that the child had spina bifida. The adoption worker asked to take the child back. My friend said no and is looking after the child.
Does the Bill represent a move to change the mindset of those responsible for adoption? I have come across a situation in which adoption would not be considered unless the hope of infertility treatment was given up while infertility treatment could not be guaranteed if people went for adoption. Surely that is not the way to deal with people who could care for children in need.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Similar examples could be cited by many Members from their constituency experience and far too many potential adoptive families face precisely such Catch-22 situations. We must streamline the process. The most important measure in the Bill is simple and self-evident; it is so self-evident and such a common-sense change that one would have thought that it would not have required legislation. The Bill will ensure that in every decision on adoption the paramount interest is that of the child. The child's interest must come first. Those responsible by and large do a good job for potential adoptive parents and children waiting to be adopted, but as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the attitude and culture have too often not been in the best interests of the child. We must change the culture, but I do not pretend that merely by changing the law we can change the culture, because the problem is more deep-seated. I believe that the necessary precondition for a change in attitude or culture is the change in the law that we propose.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend and his colleagues will be aware of the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of John Anthony Smith in King's College hospital in December 1999, and of the part 8 review carried out by Alyson Leslie on behalf of Brighton and Hove city council and West Sussex county council as a result of that death. The review talks of the need for adoption assessment to be more robust and investigative. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the review's findings will be fully taken into account in the further consideration of the Bill as it proceeds through the House?
Yes. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I can give him a number of assurances. John Smith's death was tragic and dreadful. I know that my hon. Friend has closely followed the events that led up to conclusion of the review.
First, the social services inspectorate will have a close watching brief to ensure that the conclusions of the independent review that have been published are fully implemented in my hon. Friend's local authority. Secondly, there will be a full scale SSI inspection of the Brighton and Hove local authority, which I expect to begin in April next year. More broadly, we must ensure quality and high standards in every part of the adoption process, not just in assessment.
Last year, we published for consultation—and are beginning to implement from this year—new national standards that will apply to the adoption process in all parts of the country. Those standards are long overdue, and I hope that, together with the legal changes that we propose in the Bill, they will help prevent a tragedy such as that to which my hon. Friend referred.
The problems faced in the adoption process are partly due to the fact that local authority performance is too varied across the country. In some councils, 10 per cent. of looked-after children are adopted, whereas in others the figure is less than 2 per cent. Overall, the adoption system, including the courts, is too slow and bureaucratic: it is opaque and often unfair. Potential parents wait on average nine and a half months from being accepted as an adopter to having a child placed with them. The average time taken for a looked-after child to be adopted is two years and nine months—an eternity in a child's eyes.
There has, of course, been some improvement in recent years. As we concentrate on the problems, it is also worth bearing in mind some of the advances that have taken place. Even though the total time spent in care prior to adoption is still far too long, it has been falling over recent years. I am pleased to be able to report that still further progress has been made since I came to this House last December when the adoption White Paper was published. There has been a significant increase in the number of children adopted from care for the second year in a row. More than 300 extra children were adopted in 2000–01 compared with 1999–2000. Through the quality protects programme, there has been an increase of almost 40 per cent. in the number of adoptions from care since March 1999.
However, this is no time for those involved to rest on their laurels. Despite those recent improvements, the adoption system is still in need of far-reaching change. That is why we have introduced a series of measures to reform adoption practice, and to make adoption a better and more attractive option for more families.
First, we published new adoption standards, including target maximum waiting times for the securing of a permanent new family for looked-after children, which will apply in all parts of the country. Secondly, we are increasing financial support for the adoption service, investing an extra £66 million over this year and the two that will follow it, over and above the £51 million that councils tell us they currently spend on adoption services. Thirdly, we plan to introduce new rights to give adoptive parents paid adoption leave, and access to benefits that are currently available only to natural parents.
In such difficult circumstances, grandparents are often among those who step in, and a considerable financial strain may be placed on them. They may have made provision for their retirement and suddenly find themselves bringing up grandchildren and having to deal with various problems, possibly including drug abuse. Will anything in the Bill assist such people financially? Will they receive allowances in the longer term? Financial help is available to foster parents, but not to adoptive parents.
That is true. When a child enters a new adoptive family, it is often hard going. Things have changed since the 1950s and 1960s, when most adopted children were babies under one year old. Today, that applies to only about 10 per cent. Most are older kids, and many are pretty difficult. A huge strain is placed on adoptive families, the overwhelming majority of whom do a brilliant job. We should record our thanks not just to adoptive parents but, as the hon. Gentleman implied, to wider families.
One of the new provisions in the Bill is the granting of more support to adoptive families, including—for the first time—financial support. It is important for everyone's needs to be assessed properly, not just those of adoptive parents but those of the wider family.
I welcome what the Secretary of State has said, but let me give an example from my constituency. A woman of 71 is rearing a grandchild on her own, and doing a number of part-time jobs to support him. She is having trouble persuading anyone in the benefits system that she should receive some recognition beyond the basic provision of child benefit for performing a role that is relieving the taxpayer of a potentially enormous burden.
If the hon. Gentleman writes to me about the specifics of the case, either I or the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend Jacqui Smith, will look into it. It seems to me, however, that that is a duty that the social services authority in his area, Kent county council, should be discharging. If it is not, I will gladly investigate; but the social services authority should co-ordinate the various kinds of input that should be being made.
The steps that we have taken so far are designed to make adoption easier and quicker, but, as we all know, adoption is a legal process. Securing lasting improvements in adoption services therefore requires far-reaching legal change, and that is what the Bill seeks to achieve. The British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering said of it:
"this is a once in a generation chance to improve the adoption service provided for children".
Current adoption legislation, the Adoption Act 1976, is outdated. Some of it, indeed, is based on 1950s legislation. It is also inconsistent with the Children Act 1989. This Bill seeks to overhaul completely the legal framework for adoption in England and Wales. Some of its measures apply to Scotland, and some may in future also apply to Northern Ireland.
The Bill draws on the draft Adoption Bill first introduced in 1996. It also goes further than the Adoption and Children Bill that we introduced in March this year, which fell when the general election was called. I place on record my gratitude for the contribution that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House made in the Select Committee that considered the first Bill. I believe that the current Bill is better because of them. Indeed, the House authorities would do well to look at the Select Committee approach for Bills that by and large command cross-party support. There will be differences about detail, but when there is consensus on the general thrust, such an approach should be taken because it makes for better legislation.
I propose to build on the approach that we took when the Bill was first introduced by seeking leave to send the Bill to a Special Standing Committee. That will provide an opportunity for those outside the House with real expertise in this area to give their views on the new measures that we propose.
It may be helpful to highlight some of the main provisions of the Bill. Adoption is and must be first and foremost a service for children. Clause 1 makes the welfare of the child, in childhood and later life, the paramount consideration for the court or adoption agency in making any decision relating to adoption. That brings the law on adoption for the first time into line with the law in the Children Acts.
Pursuing the entirely laudable aim of extending the use of adoption to children in the care system will mean that older children will be adopted from care. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the voices of those older children will be heard loudly and clearly throughout the adoption process?
That is extremely important. I will come later to the special provisions in the Bill for that category of looked-after children. At the moment, there is a harsh choice for older kids in the adoption system: they must either go through mainstream adoption and therefore sever all legal ties with the birth family, or stay in care or foster care. That is why we have looked at introducing the special guardianship order to open up some more choices. That will be particularly pertinent to older children who perhaps do not want to sever links or legal ties with their birth family.
When I have discussions with older children in care, they often tell me that they do not want to go to a family because they have had dreadful experiences of family life and much prefer to remain in good-quality residential care. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, in listening to the voice of the child, he recognises that for some children residential care is the right answer? There are many good-quality residential homes that look after children.
That is broadly right. There will always be some children for whom that sort of care is appropriate and right, but we must change the starting point for how we make decisions. For me, the starting point should be about trying to provide permanence, stability, and a loving and caring family for the child. Sometimes, the system has not operated in that way.
My hon. Friend is right that there will be different circumstances for different individuals. For some, adoption or the special guardianship order will not be the right route, but our starting point should be that we will seek for children in care precisely what we seek for our own children: a loving family and some permanence in their lives.
Will my right hon. Friend explain why an unmarried couple might not provide a loving family for an adopted child? The child should be put first. If the most suitable family are unmarried parents—perhaps a couple with children of their own in a long-established relationship—meet all other criteria and are absolutely right for that particular child, why does the couple have to be married?
We should debate those issues. The Bill provides an opportunity for precisely that. The Bill does not alter in any way, shape or form the current law, which says that single people or married couples are the only ones who can adopt. With all due respect to my hon. Friend, who is very knowledgeable about these issues, ultimately it is not for her, me or any other right hon. or hon. Member to decide who is or is not an appropriate prospective parent. That must be for the courts. It is important, however, that we debate those issues.
As my hon. Friend knows, last week, my hon. Friend Jane Griffiths introduced new proposals on registerable partnerships in her Relationships (Civil Registration) Bill. It is important that the Government consider our response to them and any implications that they might have for current or future adoption law. I think that we should debate those issues, and the Special Standing Committee will provide an opportunity for that. We shall undoubtedly hear many different representations, and we shall then have to respond to them.
We should debate those issues, and I hope to say something on them tonight.
The Secretary of State has not answered Ms Shipley. The Government introduced the Bill, and in opening this debate, he should express the Government's view on their current proposals. Is it the Government's view that the legislation should be passed in its current form or amended?
Although we would not have introduced the legislation unless we believed that these were broadly the right proposals—that must be the case—we want to commit the Bill to a Special Standing Committee precisely so that we can invite views from outside the House. Undoubtedly, that Committee will hear many different views, and ultimately it and the Government will have to decide whether the Bill's current proposals are the right way forward. It is sensible to debate those issues rather than pretend that they do not exist.
It is in the interests of the child that delays to adoption be designed out of the system. Children should not be left waiting indefinitely for the so-called perfect family on spurious grounds or because of a perverse sense of what is politically correct. The House will be aware of cases in which prospective adopters have been told that they cannot adopt apparently because they are too old, too overweight or even too middle class. Whatever the warped logic of those who introduce those blanket bans, the fact is that such bans fail to put the interests of the child first. Such bans put prejudice first, and that must fundamentally change. Our national standards made it clear that they have no place in a modern adoption system.
The Bill goes further than that by making it clear that although all agencies must of course give due consideration to the child's background while placing a child for adoption, there is none the less an obligation on the courts and all the other agencies involved to bear it in mind at all times that delay is likely to prejudice rather than enhance the child's welfare. Of course the best adoptive placement for a child would reflect religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural or linguistic heritage, but such a placement is best only if it can be found without unnecessary or harmful delay. What counts, and what the Bill enshrines, is that the interests of the child must come first.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way again. Although that was the fourth or fifth occasion on which we have had those welcome remarks from a Minister, the Bill still does not specifically address that issue. Clause 1 makes it clear that the wishes of the child are paramount, but clause 1(5) presents a long shopping list including
"the child's religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background."
Is it not possible, as hon. Members on both sides of the House have asked, to include at the end of clause 1(5) the words "except in so far as that might lead to unnecessary delay in finding a suitable placement"?
If the hon. Gentleman wishes to serve on the Standing Committee—[Interruption.] Dr. Fox tells me that he does. If so, Mr. Brazier is welcome to table whatever amendments he likes. Such considerations are in the Bill because they are important—but not so important that they must be followed to the detriment of the interests of the child. As we make clear in our national standards, which we want all adoption agencies and local authorities to adopt, in the end, it is the interests of the child that must count. They must come first. Personally, I cannot see why a child should be detained—for detention it too often is—in care, simply because the search for the so-called perfect family goes on. We must change that attitude now.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a danger of sending mixed messages to social workers undertaking assessments? We heard earlier about the harrowing case mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr. Lepper, and we must ensure that rigorous assessments are undertaken. At the same time, we say that we do not want to put unnecessary hurdles in the way of potential adopters and we want to speed the process. We all welcome that, but is my right hon. Friend confident that the national guidelines will satisfy both those potentially conflicting aims?
I do not think that there is a conflict between those two objectives. Indeed, I could point to evidence from some local authorities with very high standards that do not take short cuts on quality but still undertake the adoption process in a timely manner. We have to get the balance right, and I do not think that it is right yet. Too many children languish in care when they need to be placed with an adoptive family that can give them the stability that they need in their lives.
If the hon. Member for Canterbury cares to look at the very first clause in the Bill, "Considerations applying to the exercise of powers", he will see that subsection (3) says:
"The court or adoption agency must at all times bear in mind that, in general, any delay in coming to the decision is likely to prejudice the child's welfare."
That is right, and we expect not only the courts but all those engaged in the process of adoption to give due recognition to our proposals for legal changes.
As a key part of our drive to reduce delay in the adoption process, we have already established an adoption register for England and Wales. The register holds information on children waiting to be adopted, and on approved adoptive families across the country waiting to adopt. The information on the register will be used to suggest families for a child where a local match cannot be found within an agreed time, or where the child needs to move away from the area. The Bill places the register on a statutory footing. It also provides the flexibility to expand the register to cover alternative forms of permanent placement for children.
The register on its own, however, will not make adoption easier or quicker. The legal process itself can be laborious, slow and frustrating for all concerned. Unnecessary delays are not in the interests of prospective adopters or those of the child, so the Bill includes further measures to cut delays in the legal process by requiring courts to draw up timetables for adoption cases and issue any directions necessary to ensure that the timetables are met.
As I told my hon. Friend Mr. Dawson, adoption will not be suitable for all children. Older children may not want legal separation from their birth parents, even though they may not want to live with them. Adoption may not be the best option for other children, such as those who are being cared for permanently by members of their wider family.
At present, children have only one choice of legal permanence outside the care system: mainstream adoption. The Bill introduces a further choice: new special guardianship orders. They give permanence to the child, by giving day-to-day responsibility for his or her care to the special guardian without severing all legal ties with the birth family. That new flexibility will give new opportunities to children who have been bypassed by the current adoption laws.
In the interest of the child, I am also determined to tighten the controls on advertising, payments and intercountry adoption. Right hon. and hon. Members will recall the internet twins case earlier this year. Adoption is a service for children, not for profit. It should happen in the interests of the child, not as some form of commercial transaction.
The Bill therefore makes a number of major changes to the laws on intercountry adoption. It will build on the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999. We have already actioned provisions in the 1999 Act to make it an offence for a British resident to bring a child from another country into the UK for the purpose of adoption, unless they are already approved adopters. It is also now illegal for anyone other than a local authority or a registered voluntary adoption agency to assess and approve prospective adopters. Privately commissioned home studies can now no longer be accepted as part of the adoption process.
The Bill goes further in strengthening the law on intercountry adoptions. First, it will introduce a new offence where a child is brought into the UK after being adopted overseas by a British resident within the previous six months without the adopters following the proper approved procedure. Secondly, it will put in place tougher penalties for those not following the proper procedures. The maximum penalty for those adopting overseas or bringing a child into the country for the purposes of adoption will be raised from three months' imprisonment at present to a maximum of 12 months. Those who break the law could face the maximum jail sentence, an unlimited fine or both.
Thirdly, the Bill includes a new provision that will allow the Government to ensure that adoption orders made overseas will be recognised in the UK only when the systems in the overseas country meet criteria set out in regulations here. The criteria will include ensuring that proper consents have been given by the birth parents, that the prospective adopters are suitable to adopt and that profit has not been made.
Six months seemed an appropriate half-way house to us, but I am happy for the issue to be discussed because it is important and needs to be examined during the passage of the Bill. As the hon. Gentleman knows, at present we have a list of eligible countries—the so-called designated list—that includes the US. Several countries propose to adopt the Hague convention on the protection of children. Indeed, we hope to be able to ratify that convention some time next year. The US has not yet ratified the convention and we will need to ensure that there is no gap between those countries that have adopted the Hague convention and those that have not, which might inadvertently put children at risk. Following the internet twins case, we have reviewed the designated list and will introduce measures if we think that that is appropriate.
I intended to ask a similar question to that asked by Dr. Fox, and I did not understand the Secretary of State's answer about the six-month limit. I would be grateful if that point could be clarified in Committee, or preferably before, because it was raised with me by my hon. Friend Mr. Oaten, who cannot be present for this debate. He wanted to know where the six-month limit came from because he was the sponsor of the original Bill.
I am happy for the point to be clarified in the debate today or in Committee. I presume that the hon. Gentleman is another volunteer for the Committee.
The Bill takes two further steps better to protect the welfare of children from exploitation. It will introduce tougher penalties for those who seek to circumvent the safeguards for arranging adoptions and payments for domestic and intercountry adoptions. It will double the penalties, with up to six months in prison, a £10,000 fine or both. Importantly, it introduces new safeguards for advertising children for adoption. Advertising can, of course, be an effective method of encouraging more people to come forward to adopt, but this activity must be properly regulated in the interests of the children concerned.
The Bill, therefore, amends the existing restrictions on advertising in the Adoption Act 1976. Anyone other than an approved adoption agency who publishes or distributes an advertisement for the adoption of a child in England and Wales will be guilty of an offence. On conviction, the individual would be liable for imprisonment for up to three months or a fine of £5,000 or both.
Offline and, importantly, online advertising through the internet will be subject to the new restrictions. Advertising via the internet will need to be compatible with the e-commerce directive on which the Government are consulting. When that consultation is complete, we will ensure that the Bill reflects it appropriately.
Most children are adopted from this country rather than from countries abroad, but adoption support services across the country are patchy and inconsistent. Too often, adoptive families feel that they have to fight the system. It is little wonder, then, that nearly one in 10 adoptive placements break down before the child is legally adopted. Children with special needs or challenging backgrounds in particular become less likely to be adopted because of inadequate support for their prospective adoptive parents. Children in search of adoptive parents have often already gone through at least one family breakdown. In my view, the system cannot continue to let those children or their prospective families down.
The families deserve more support. The Bill tackles the postcode lottery in adoption support services. To ensure that high quality services are available everywhere, the Bill requires adoption support agencies to register with the National Care Standards Commission in England and the National Assembly in Wales. Provision of adoption support services outside this regulatory framework will become a criminal offence.
The Bill also introduces a new duty on local authorities across the country to make arrangements for the provision of adoption support services, including financial support. There will also be a duty to provide a support service for special guardianship placements.
The Bill includes a new right for all those directly affected by adoption to an assessment of their needs for adoption support services. It establishes a new independent review mechanism that will be available for prospective adopters who feel that they are being turned down unfairly. We will consult a wide range of agencies and organisations in developing the independent review mechanism and the regulations to underpin it.
I welcome the fact that the Bill provides for a duty on adoption service providers to provide an assessment service, but it does not provide for a duty on adoption services to provide a service once the assessment has been made. Is that not likely to result in a postcode lottery in the provision of services?
Some local authorities make appropriate adoption support services available, including a proper assessment of need, and they should all do so. Ultimately, however, the local authorities run the service, not me or any of us, so they must decide who needs what level of support.
We will consult widely on eligibility criteria and publish guidance in due course about how financial support, in particular, should operate. Some families will have a greater need than others; that is simple and self-evident. Ultimately, local authorities must take those decisions, which is why we are making available specific extra resources for them, certainly in England, to ensure that they can discharge their functions. The £66 million that we are putting in over this year, next year and the year after will be a considerable boost to local authority coffers when it comes to adoption services. Out of that, they will need to enact the new provisions and decide which families should receive financial support, and at what level.
I accept all that my right hon. Friend has said. Would it be appropriate to have an independent review mechanism for people who are turned down for adoption support along the same lines as that provided for prospective adopters?
There are two important points. First, there is an existing complaints procedure, as my hon. Friend knows. We have listened to representations about the creation of a new adoption ombudsman and our view is that adoption is in essence a mainstream social services function. It thus seems right that if there are complaints about specific aspects of decision making in relation to adoption they should be dealt with through the mainstream complaints procedures. Incidentally, I think that those procedures need sharpening—they need to be quicker. As he well knows, it can take months, if not longer, to deal with complaints. That builds delay into the procedures—into the very process of ensuring that a potential adoptive family is matched with a child for adoption.
Secondly, we are introducing an independent review mechanism under the Bill. That concerns not so much the level of adoption allowances for families but, for example, whether a family has been inappropriately turned down as adopters. At present, the system does not incorporate such independence. As my hon. Friend and I know from our constituency experience, that is a real source of grievance for many prospective adopters. It is right that we build in independent review throughout the system, whether of the provision of information to adopted children about their birth families, or of decisions to place a child with a particular family. They are difficult issues.
Hon. Members often criticise local authorities and others who discharge such functions—sometimes even the Government make such criticisms—but we should make no bones about the fact that they do a difficult job. The issues are difficult and emotionally fraught. Not only must we get the process—and the law in regard to who should or should not be adopted—right, we must build in independent safeguards throughout the system. That is what we have tried to do. We shall be happy to hear views on how the Bill's provisions for independent review could be strengthened.
Comprehensive reform of adoption law is long overdue. Children and families can be affected throughout their lives by delay and dysfunction in the adoption system. The Bill seeks to take action on both fronts.
The Bill is part of a wider package of measures that the Government are taking to improve opportunities for children in our society. Whatever their family structure and whatever their family history, children only get one chance to grow up. Loving and stable families are the basis for the strong society that we want to create. So we will continue to invest resources to improve the life chances of children and families, whatever their background or circumstances, through measures such as the working families tax credit, the minimum wage, sure start, quality protects, family- friendly employment legislation and this Bill.
Our ambition for any child must be the same as our ambition for every child, and the same as our ambition for our own children: a safe and sound family life, where children are loved and given the support to do well for themselves and to grow up to be responsible and loving adults; a stable and permanent future, with the security of parents whose sole interests are the welfare of that child; and a decent start in life, with each generation of adults seeking a better future for the next. Those values underpin the Bill. The measure is better for the scrutiny that it has already received in the House. I believe that it will considerably enhance the life chances of some of the most vulnerable children in our society.
I commend the Bill to the House.
There will be a large measure of agreement about the Bill on both sides of the House. Certainly, a change in the adoption law has been a long time evolving. The Bill has its origins in the Conservative Government's review that took place in 1992, which, as the Secretary of State correctly said, resulted in a draft Bill in 1996. I want to take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman for her private Member's Bill, which gave a push to adoption reform last year.
I add my thanks to those who served on and gave evidence to the Select Committee that considered the Adoption and Children Bill in the previous Parliament. We would all do very well to learn the lessons of a Bill that was given a good deal of pre-legislative scrutiny. Almost all hon. Members would recognise that a better Bill is now in front of us than was considered previously. It has been a very useful constitutional exercise.
Notwithstanding the broad agreement in the House, adoption legislation is always very difficult because it represents a complex balance of interests—a balance between the rights of the adopters and the birth parents, with the interests of the child always paramount. That balance also involves speed of access, with a rigorous commitment to quality in assessment. Adoption also involves balancing the geographical mismatch between those parents who want to adopt a child and the children who are put up for adoption, with the minimum possible disruption to the child. That is especially important where children may not have contact with their natural parents, but may have contact with members of their extended family. Minimal disruption is very much to be hoped for in those cases. That is especially true when there is contact with natural siblings, which needs to be maintained wherever possible.
We very much welcome the presumption in the Bill that delay is generally prejudicial to the child's welfare. That is all the more important because the proportion of children adopted from care has increased from 7 per cent. in 1975 to more than 50 per cent. now. However, I am sure that the Secretary of State would want me to reassert that speed is by no means the most important aspect of adoption and that, in this legislative process, we must focus on the appropriateness of the placing and the outcome for the child.
It is right to aim for higher levels of adoption, but an obsession with targets for local authorities, which are under pressure to meet their numbers, will not necessarily produce a better system. As we have seen in other areas, the Government have a rigid obsession with numerical targets. I hope that the Minister who responds to the debate will give us a guarantee that there will be no question of imposing financial or other penalties where local authorities fail to meet adoption targets set by central Government.
As has been said already, we fully understand the decision to give due consideration to a child's racial and cultural origins. That is especially true where the child is older and may have a very clear view of who he or she actually is. However, there must be no hard and fast rule because that could exclude perfectly good adoptive parents on the ground of their race, and I am sure that all hon. Members would find that utterly offensive. We need to take a commonsense approach, given the sort of society in which we now live.
I spoke to representatives of an agency this morning and discussed the case of a white couple adopting a black child. As they said, it is much more sensible for that to occur in an urban setting where there is clearly an acceptance of a much more multi-ethnic society than in a rural setting where a child might feel much more exposed. We need to understand those sensitivities, banish the politically correct brigade's nonsense and recognise that we have to deal with cultural and racial issues sensitively, but that misplaced political ideology can all too easily stand in the way of children's welfare.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would represent misplaced ideology to state that a couple had to be married to adopt if they fitted all the other criteria, the child was put first and it was the best place for the child? Would not a PC ideology of a particular sort stop adoption because of a lack of marriage?
It is mistaken to view the issue in isolation in the way that the hon. Lady describes. Emanating not least from Downing street at present is the view that wider social trends need to be taken into account—for example, what is the wider picture being given in a piece of legislation on the institution of marriage? As the Secretary of State rightly said, that issue will be widely discussed in Committee. I can already envisage a considerable amount of time in Committee being given to that issue, and I am sure that those hon. Members who will serve on the Committee are taking note.
It is an important principle of the Bill that a court must not make an order unless it considers that making the order would be better than not doing so. It is also clear from the Bill that the interests of the child should be not first, but paramount. In other words, they should outweigh all other considerations. Although many of us are in instinctive sympathy with that view, there is something of a conflict between paramountcy and reasonableness. I draw the Secretary of State's attention to the 1992 review, which recommended that the child's welfare should be paramount except when a court was deciding whether to dispense with parental consent. It added that
"where adoption would only be marginally better than another option, the court should allow the fact that a parent does not agree to adoption to tip the balance in favour of the other option."
In view of the reservations raised by many of the organisations that have already given evidence on that point, it would be useful if the Minister could give us more detail on the Government's thinking.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that progress has been made in levelling the apparent gap by ensuring that the proposals in the placement orders meet the criteria set out in the Children Acts?
I am sure that that is correct. However, I am also sure that those applying the law will be looking for clear direction from Parliament on how it should be interpreted. After consultation with the Government's legal advisers, the Minister might feel that she cannot provide clarification tonight, but we will want it to be provided in Committee.
One striking development since the 1992 review has been the widespread acceptance of the need for pre- and post-adoption services. It is worth recalling that one in five adoptions fail and, as the Secretary of State pointed out, that is especially true when the child involved has special needs. Such cases involve great care in the selection process for adopters, but I am sure that I am not alone in continually wondering at the sheer commitment and downright goodness of those who adopt profoundly handicapped children. My experience as a doctor leaves me with no illusions about the difficulties that those parents face over the longer term, and the Committee will need to find answers to questions about the organisation and finance of the post-adoption services that they will need.
For example, who will be responsible for financing post-adoption services when a child moves from one part of the country to another, as is more likely with a national register in place? When local authorities are forced to provide services, will more money be made specifically available to them? Will that money be ring-fenced or will it be a "Robbing Peter to pay Paul" exercise, as some of them fear?
Then there is the question of entitlement to assessment. If the group entitled to assessment, including birth parents, can be extended by regulation in the way that the Bill stipulates, who will ensure that local facilities will not be overstretched with distortions of priority and pressure on resources? What will happen if someone is assessed as needing services but, as Kevin Brennan pointed out, the local authority is under no duty to provide them? Will we not become involved in nothing more than a bureaucratic charade?
The Secretary of State referred to adoption allowances, but when will the Government provide us with more detail on exactly how they will work and on what the tax and benefit implications will be? How do Ministers envisage such a scheme working to ensure that, wherever possible, it is targeted to the requirement that siblings are kept together? Again, we shall want very much to explore that issue in Committee.
We agree in principle with the Government about many other points, but need more detail about them. For example, the introduction of an appeals procedure is widely welcomed on both sides of the House, because there have been far too many stories in the press about perfectly decent people being turned down as adoptive parents on the most spurious grounds. However, the plans are still a little too vague. How will appeals be triggered; who will give leave to appeal to an independent body; and what is to stop every adoptive parent who has been turned down from seeking an appeal with the obvious potential for administrative chaos that that would entail? Who will pay the cost of appeals? If the adoption agencies are made to pay, they will be under pressure to avoid costs by pleasing the adoptive parent, even if the result is a less appropriate placement. How will they deal with that? We need greater clarification of that during the Bill's passage.
The problem of parental responsibility, especially in relation to stepfathers and unmarried fathers, is difficult, and I sympathise with the Government in having to grapple with it. It is right that consent is dealt with clearly and early on in the process. Many have expressed the view that there is a tension in the law between the Government's approach through bodies such as the Child Support Agency, which assume and enforce the financial responsibility of fathers, and parental responsibility as it relates to adoption. Like hon. Members on both sides of the House, I am aware of concerns that some fathers might inappropriately take parental responsibility to stop adoption. However, Ministers are right to continue on the path outlined in the Bill and not to back away. Inconsistency of principle does not make good law, however uncomfortable it might be in the short term.
We have reservations on one matter, and we will want to question Ministers closely on it in Committee. It relates to the restriction on access to birth records for adopted adults. The Bill will fundamentally alter the arrangements in force since enactment of the Adoption Act 1976, under which adopted adults enjoy the right to be given information necessary for them to obtain a copy of the original birth certificate. We all understand the sensitivities of birth parents and the possible effects that such disclosure can have on others, especially later children. However, those who are adopted surely have an absolute right to know who they are. We cannot and should not legislate away someone's basic identity. We shall certainly want the Government completely to rethink their proposals.
Much work needs to be done to scrutinise details of this long, 130-plus clause Bill. There will be much agreement, including on plans to improve the court system for the adoption process. We will want to hear more about that and how the national register, which we support, will operate. We will also want measures to be put in place for older children in care. They are often the most difficult to place. They face long delays and are most deprived of the values and ethos of the world beyond the care home. We need to find ways in which they can have more contact with families during their time in care, so that they are better prepared for life outside.
I am sure the House agrees that, above all, we need to enforce rigorous safeguards for children at all stages in the process. As mentioned at the beginning of the debate, the death of four-year-old John Smith, with 53 injuries, due to a failure to make the appropriate checks is a shocking and shameful indictment of the system. We must not allow a similar incident to happen again.
We welcome the planned changes to the law in light of the Kilshaw case and the restrictions on intercountry adoption. The unchecked trade in babies on the internet and elsewhere must disgust hon. Members on both sides of the House, and we will certainly welcome controls. We will give the Bill a fair wind and try to improve it further. We are dealing with some of the most vulnerable people in our society. They are often scarred, traumatised and afraid for themselves and their future. We must not allow politics, prejudices, bureaucracy or short-term convenience to stand in the way of them having a chance to experience a loving family and to participate in the fullness of life that we often take too much for granted. In this area of law making, perhaps above all others, Members of the House of Commons have an opportunity to give to needy and undervalued children something that they may not otherwise get—a second chance. We must not fail them.
I very much welcome the Bill and the Government's commitment to improve adoption services for children and to deal with delays in the adoption process. I was privileged to sit on the Select Committee chaired by my hon. Friend Mr. Hinchliffe, which took evidence on the Adoption and Children Bill introduced in the last Parliament. I am pleased that this Bill will also go to a Special Standing Committee, because that is a valuable experience.
Everyone has an opinion on adoption—prospective adopters, adopters, natural parents, extended families, people who were adopted as children and the general public. Few people will not know someone who has a direct or indirect experience of adoption. Some experiences are heart-rending. They include people who were adopted 30 years ago and have no right of access to information about their natural parents; families that are disturbed and traumatised by the sudden appearance of an adult who was placed for adoption as a child many years before; and people who are refused as adopters for what they believe is no good reason. On the other hand, we have the sad situation in which people who are approved as adopters cause harm and suffering to children placed with them.
Opinions about what should be in adoption law are as many and as varied as the individual experiences people have had. It is right that legislation should give proper consideration to those experiences, but we should not have an adoption law that attempts to balance often different and conflicting interests. I therefore welcome clause 1(2) which says:
"The paramount consideration . . . must be the child's welfare, throughout his"— or indeed her "life."
It is not the interests of the parents or prospective adopters, but the child's welfare that is placed above all other considerations.
However, I, too, should like the definition of "the child's welfare" clarified. Clause 1(6) states:
"The court or adoption agency must always consider the whole range of powers available to it in the child's case (whether under this Act or the Children Act 1989); and the court must not make any order under this Act unless it considers that making the order would be better for the child than not doing so."
I presume that the clause covers placement orders. Clause 20(2), which specifically refers to placement orders, says:
"The court may not make a placement order in respect of a child unless . . . the child is subject to a care order, or . . . the court is satisfied that the conditions in section 31(2) of the 1989 Act . . . are met."
Those conditions are whether the child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm. Without those conditions being met, the order should not be made.
Clause 50 relates to parental consent. Placement orders dispense with consent. The clause sets out two conditions for overturning parental consent, one of which is that
"the welfare of the child requires the consent to be dispensed with."
If in granting a placement order the Government intend to apply the threshold of significant harm similar to that in a care order as set out in the 1989 Act, we need better clarification of that in clauses 1 and 50. If it is not their intention, clause 20 probably needs some attention.
I also welcome clause 1(3), which states:
"The court or adoption agency must at all times bear in mind that, in general, any delay in coming to the decision is likely to prejudice the child's welfare."
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the delay in adopting children in care is still unacceptable. However, clause 5—this relates to an earlier point—specifically addresses the placement of children for adoption after a placement order is made. In other words, it recommends with whom children should be placed and gives due consideration to a number of matters. The clause does not make it clear that delay should also be a consideration when taking account of other factors, although I am sure that there is an assumption that that should be so. Delays in the court system can be addressed but, once an order has been granted, delays in adoption agencies making matches and moving the process forward also have to be addressed.
As I said, everybody has opinions about adoption, and mine are informed by the fact that prior to being elected to Parliament I was, like many of my colleagues, a social worker. I spent 10 years working in fostering and adoption. Most of the children whom we placed for adoption were under five, and most had had damaging experiences in their home environment. Most of the adopters were childless couples who would have wanted, in different circumstances, to adopt a baby if that had been possible.
The assessments that adoption officers have to make are complex and difficult. Not only do they have to consider the present needs of the child and assess what kind of family would meet them, which can be very complex, but in assessing families they must come to a conclusion about how they will respond in future to the challenges that their adopted child may present. That is a tough job, and it requires very good judgment.
It is good to start with a commitment from adoptive parents to love a child, but it is certainly not always enough, given the complex emotional problems that children can present in an adoptive placement. That is why post-adoption support is crucial, not only in the assessment of needs but in the provision of practical help. I very much welcome the Bill's recognition of that fact, which is a step forward.
Does my hon. Friend agree that prospective adoptive parents need to be provided with all the information regarding the child's background, including any assessment that has been carried out? It is only fair and proper that they know everything about the child.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. When I was an adoption worker some years ago, we tried our best to do that, and I am sure that matters have improved a great deal in recent years. Of course, adoptive families need the widest possible information about the child and the background.
We can introduce the best legislation in the world, but it will not, by itself, improve adoption practice. The quality of assessments, the matching of children with families and the support that is given determine the outcome of adoption placements. We need to train and skill the adoption workers who make those crucial assessments. I worked in adoption during a time that now attracts heavy criticism for its politically correct decisions, and I have heard that criticism made by Opposition Members in previous debates. I refer, of course, to the "same race" debate.
At that time, we believed that an important factor determining the success of a placement was matching the child to a family who reflected the child's race and culture. I still believe that it is an important factor. Unfortunately, however, there is not always a family who will provide that match. The national adoption register, another innovation, will increase the possibility of a match because there will be a wider range of adoptive families from which to choose.
I accept that there were delays during those years, but if at that time adoption workers had been made aware of the importance of not causing undue delay and of the difficulties that delay can cause a child, we may well have considered other options earlier. I am not taking a shot at the previous Conservative Government, who presided over that state of affairs—well, I suppose I am really. I am simply making the point that we have to ensure that adoption workers have the best possible information to make their assessment and the best possible skills with which to perform that complex and difficult task.
I know that the Government are making available £47.5 million for social care training, which is another very welcome investment in social work. Will any of that money be used specifically for further training of adoption workers or, indeed, of adopters, who also need training to support often difficult and damaged children?
I very much welcome the new provision in clause 104 to timetable court proceedings, and I welcome the announcement that, from
The Bill is very welcome, and I congratulate the Government on timetabling the Second Reading so early in the Session. It demonstrates their commitment to ensuring that children in care are given the best possible opportunities in life.
There is widespread consensus throughout the Chamber on large parts of the Bill, and I will not repeat what Dr. Fox said about the areas on which there is broad agreement.
We have benefited from the expertise of the hon. Members for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley), for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), for Stockport (Ms Coffey) and for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), and we will do so again in Committee.
One of the more telling statements made about the Bill is that it is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. That says a great deal about Parliament's willingness to legislate on adoption at leisure, over years and decades. While Parliament has been slow, changes in family structures and the needs of potential adoptees have outstripped the ability of the system, governed by legislation and regulation, to keep up.
Having said that, one cannot accuse this Government of being slow to introduce legislation following the Prime Minister's expression of interest in the matter. The Government have acted quickly and, moreover, they have been willing to accept that the rapid introduction of the Bill may mean that it does not contain all the answers. That is why I share the hon. Member for Woodspring's view that the attention of a Select Committee was welcome. The differences between this Bill and an earlier, lapsed attempt demonstrate not only that events have moved on but that the Government were able to take account of points arising from the evidence in the truncated Select Committee proceedings. I recognise the work done by Back Benchers on private Member's Bills, such as that in the name of Mrs. Spelman and the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend Mr. Oaten, which became an Act in 1999.
It is appropriate on Second Reading to note that our main aim must be to prevent the need for adoption where possible. Support structures in education, health care and social services must be put in place to help people become good parents so that there is less requirement for children to be taken into care. Adoption has been described as the last resort. That is unfair, but there is a recognition that a care home should be the last resort. An increasing realisation of that has changed the population in care, and made it conversely more difficult to place looked-after children with adoptive families.
That is why the Government's record on increasing the proportion of children in care who are adopted is particularly commendable. We must be careful not to get carried away, because the increase has been small, from 3.8 per cent of children in care in 1997-98 to 5.2 per cent last year. None the less, that increase should be acknowledged, given the change in the population of children in care that occurs as greater efforts are made to avoid their going into care in the first place.
The Secretary of State mentioned the difficulty in respect of older children. About two thirds of those adopted from care are aged less than five and only 5 per cent. are aged 10 or above. Although the average period children spend in care before being adopted is less than three years—two years and nine months, according to figures from the Library—more than a third spend more than three years in care before being adopted. The longer a child is in care and the older they are when adopted, the more difficult placement becomes.
To attack the issue holistically and to increase the number of adopters it is important to increase the status of those who adopt and those who perform magnificent work as foster carers. I welcome the Secretary of State's emphasis on increasing their status and his acknowledgement that they provide a tremendous public good, as well as a personal good to both parties involved. It is broadly welcome that the paramountcy of the child's welfare throughout its life has been written into legislation. Against that background, the aim should be to ensure less hassle and delay for both the child and the adoptive parents.
Part of tackling both those issues is to widen the pool of prospective carers and adoptive parents. Ageism should have no place in measures taken under the legislation and the new procedures. If parents would otherwise be good adopters, and as long as other criteria are met, artificial criteria relating to age and health should not be set. Too often we hear of arbitrary cut-off dates that are, in effect, discrimination on the basis of age, as well as accounts of value judgments being made as to the ability of adoptive parents to carry out their role based on concerns about their health, but with presumption and prejudice taking precedence over proper evaluation of their abilities.
I tend to share the view that racial differences need not be an automatic barrier to adoption, but to use that argument to attack so-called political correctness undermines the fundamental point. If the hon. Member for Woodspring is right and race should not be a barrier, I repeat the question put by the hon. Member for Stourbridge to both Front-Bench teams: should marital status be a barrier, as it currently is, to joint adoption? That question was not answered by either the Secretary of State or the Conservative spokesman, and I cannot understand why not—it has been floating around in the ether for long enough.
I am prepared to put on the record the view of Liberal Democrats: we think that unmarried couples should have a right to adopt jointly. If Labour and Conservative Front Benchers address that issue, we will make better progress in Committee. The Secretary of State claimed that he wanted to have a debate on the issue, and he will get one, but his comment suggests to me that he has not yet decided whether to support our point of view.
Just as marital status and race should not be barriers to adoption as long as adoptive parents meet the relevant criteria and the welfare of the child is paramount, the sexuality of adoptive parents need not be relevant. It is important to recognise that times have changed since previous legislation was passed. I hope that we can persuade the Government to change their position on that point.
The Secretary of State mentioned the ten-minute Bill introduced by Jane Griffiths—a Bill that I and other Back Benchers supported. During the debate, Mr. Bell set out what he considered was the Government's view, stating that the then Home Secretary, Mr. Straw, had assured him in a previous debate
"that there would be no legal adoption of children by homosexual couples".—[Hansard, 24 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 324.]
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that children are already placed with same-sex couples, but that what happens in law is that one partner adopts the child and the other seeks parental responsibility through an alternative court proceeding? That method, in its way, provides for adoption, but does it not mean that unmarried heterosexual couples are being discriminated against?
I agree that there is discrimination whichever way one looks at it. The easiest way in which to tackle the problem would be to recognise that, as long as the criteria for adoptive parents are met and the welfare of the child is paramount, there should be no bar to joint adoption by such couples. I have seen no evidence that couples' sexuality or marital status affects their ability to provide a happy home for children. Indeed, the evidence is that children born to lesbian couples using an intermediary and unknown donor are very well adjusted.
I totally support the hon. Gentleman's arguments about re-examining the issue of marital status. Does he agree that an additional point that could be used to make that case is that we are short of good quality prospective adoptive parents? There are far more looked-after children who could be adopted than there are prospective adopters.
The hon. Lady puts well the argument on which this section of my speech started. There is anecdotal evidence from adoption agencies that 10 per cent. of couples who apply to adopt are not married. They may be put off by the fact that they are rejected ab initio from performing the role of adopters. In addition, 40 per cent. of children are now born outside marriage, making such family structures a recognised and common form. To continue to discriminate against such couples is wholly unnecessary and detrimental to the children whose interests we want to be put first. I hope that the Conservatives will reflect on the message sent by the electorate—a message that many of them have accepted privately, although fewer have done so publicly—and join us in pressing the Government on that issue.
It has already been said that targets can dominate policy, which would be wrong, rather than provide an insight into the successful or otherwise outcome of policy. Targets—whether for the number of placements and adoptions, or for waiting times—are useful as monitoring devices, but when they become an end in themselves, policy and procedures may be perverted to meet them. I understand the pressure that the media and Opposition parties can exert on the Government to establish and meet targets, but I hope that adoption targets will not be rigid. Adoption should be policy-led, not target-led.
I am delighted that the Government are to let local authorities retain responsibility for adoption, which is a core social services function. The key issue is resources. It would be a false economy not to invest sufficient resources in adoption services to maximise the number of good adoptions. Adoption services have historically been under-resourced and social services generally are being squeezed.
My next point is one that it is legitimate to make on Second Reading, and I intend to repeat it at every opportunity. It is that my local county council is again having to make cuts across a range of social services as additional duties imposed by the Government, as well as its responsibilities to an ageing population and a greater number of looked-after children, outstrip the growth money that the Government provided after their first two years in government. In their first two years, there was a real-terms cut in funding. I hope that the Minister will listen to the voice of the Local Government Association about resources and recognise that ring fencing is not the answer. It is easy for Conservative spokespeople to say "Let us ring-fence an inadequate amount of resources", but that does not solve the problem.
Critically, if we are to increase the amount and quality of adoption, we must have the necessary staff, which means raising the status of social workers and recognising the staff shortages that now exist not only in the south-east, but elsewhere. It will be a tragedy if the Government cannot deliver on those aims. Although investigations must be carried out when dreadful cases arise, I hope that hon. Members in all parties recognise that the use of such cases as an excuse to clobber under-resourced and overstretched social workers makes matters worse in the long run. We must ensure that we do not damage our case by seeking to allocate blame—a principle that applies in other health care professions.
On post-adoption financial support for adoptive parents, I worry when I hear the term "postcode lottery", as it implies that the misery will be shared out evenly when there is a problem with resources and that social services departments will not have the flexibility to focus resources where they feel them to be most needed. Adoptive parents in some areas will be less well resourced than those in other areas and will need additional funding. If we impose rigid central control, even with the welcome but misguided aim of ensuring no variation in provision, we may well be doing people a disservice.
Much has been said about intercountry adoption aspects. Will the Minister explain why the six-month limit in the new legislation has been introduced for overseas adopters? My hon. Friend Dr. Cable, who will seek to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, joins me in asking whether we can ensure that we do not deprive children from other countries of the opportunities for adoption by being over-rigid in our application of criteria. Of course, we recognise that welfare considerations must be met. Our worry, however, is about cases in which all criteria are met, but the original country's procedures are not recognised by this country, so adoption is prevented, however good it would be, however appropriate the steps that have been taken and however clearly the birth parents have given their consent. That may be inevitable, but I hope that the Government will reflect on the effect of seeking to look tough and on the risk of penalising reasonable and genuine adoptive arrangements.
I was interested in the question whether the religious views of the child are an issue. One must accept that it is only older children with significant capacity who will come to their own religious views. Personally, I would worry if the options for adoption were restricted for children who were born into a religious household of one denomination or another. It would be inappropriate for such children to wait longer for suitable adoptive parents than children who were born into atheist families or who do not know about their supposed inherited religion. Religious beliefs, like political ones, are different from race and gender, as they are acquired. If religious belief is to mean anything, it must be consciously entered into rather than inherited genetically. I hope that that issue will be carefully considered.
My final two points relate to ethically difficult areas. First is the question of parental consent and its significance when a small advantage is deemed to be gained from adoption in terms of the welfare of the child, but there is fierce opposition from parents with the capacity to withhold consent. There may be only a few cases in which that happens, but the matter will have to be explored very carefully in the Special Standing Committee. We must recognise that consent must be genuine to be valid. Consent has far too often been sought under inducement. It is better not to use an excuse where there is clearly no genuine consent.
Finally, I question the presumption of the hon. Member for Woodspring that we have an absolute right with regard to the Government's proposals to protect third-party rights in terms of access to information, with which he took issue. I am much more inclined to support the Government position. I do not believe that we have an absolute right to know who we are in genetic terms. I say to those on the Conservative Front Bench that we do not have an absolute right to subject our fathers to DNA testing to see whether they really are our fathers. Research evidence from anonymous testing suggests that the proportion of children who are not their father's child is well into double figures in urban areas. We do not have such a right and I do not believe that we should have it. [Interruption.] I am sorry if I am making some hon. Members uncomfortable; I did not intend to do so. I was referring to what is suggested by research. It is questionable for people glibly to say that one has an absolute right to knowledge of one's genetic inheritance.
All in all, the Bill is a very valuable measure. I echo the points that have been made on both sides of the House about the fact that so much of it is welcome and overdue. I look forward to the rest of the debate and to a healthy and—where appropriate—heated Committee stage.
Like my hon. Friend Ms Coffey, I served on the Select Committee so I am delighted to be called to speak in this debate. I add my voice to those on both sides of the House who have congratulated the Government on the Bill, but I point out that we must also congratulate them on what came before it. It was praiseworthy that an Adoption and Children Bill came to the House shortly before the last general election. I congratulate the Government on establishing the Select Committee and on heeding the evidence that was taken and using it to improve that Bill. I also congratulate them on the speed with which they brought this Bill to the House. The Select Committee was concerned to ensure that we would not lose impetus, so their track record speaks volumes.
I do not propose to say much about the two core objectives that the Bill seeks to achieve: putting the child at the centre of the process and speeding up that process. Much has already been said about those aims. I merely point out that the two are inextricably linked and that it is also worth acknowledging that the Government were putting in place many planks of the process before the Bill's return to the Floor of the House, to help to speed up the adoption process and to put the child at its heart.
The national adoption standards, which will be enforced by the National Care Standards Commission from April 2002, were issued this August. An adoption and permanence taskforce has also been set up to support local councils in improving their performance—a point to which I shall return in a moment. The Lord Chancellor's Department announced that adoption work in county courts and above was to be centralised in specialist adoption centres throughout England and Wales from the beginning of this month. Without doubt, the original system has played a significant part in delaying that process. However, will the Minister tell us whether the change has gone smoothly in the first instance? I should also be interested to know how the work will be monitored in future. Another move forward was the establishment of a national adoption register under the old legislation. It will, of course, operate with increased powers under the Bill.
I welcome the introduction of an independent review mechanism for those who feel that they have been turned down unfairly as adopters—an issue about which I spoke on
Placing looked-after children successfully has become so difficult over the years because of the proportion of children in care with special needs—I use that expression in its broadest sense. Many children in care are badly damaged and it is more of a challenge for the system, including social workers and agencies, to work quickly and make the right matches.
It is therefore unsurprising that it is easier to place smaller children for adoption and that statistics for post-adoption breakdown are especially high—nearly 50 per cent.—for older children. Post-adoption support is paramount and a key plank of the Bill. A sense of further failure and worthlessness in the children must be avoided at all costs.
Let us consider the adoption and permanence taskforce and the varying performance of local authorities. Successful adoption rates vary from 1 to 10 per cent. according to the Minister, and up to 14 per cent. according to the House of Commons research paper. Good practice will continue to be vital to the success of the new framework, which will probably not improve the outcomes as desired by itself. The practice as well as the framework must be right. I should like to hear the Minister's views on delivery, apart from the measure, in more detail.
We have known for some time that practice varies. What analysis has the Department carried out on the key reasons for that? What are the main factors? Has anything been done in the interim to tackle the findings of such analysis? The taskforce aims to give practical help to authorities with development plans and implementation, and to share good practice.
The first 11 councils have already had preliminary visits. I am interested in the way those councils were chosen and whether they were predominantly in poorer performing areas where adoption success rates are lower. Children who live in the jurisdiction of the poorest- performing local authorities remain less likely to be successfully placed in the first instance under the new regime. I should be interested to know the taskforce's initial findings. It has recently published an annual report, but I should like some more detail.
Good management is at the heart of success. I know that from my long experience in the education system and from experience of other organisations in my current job. Good management makes the crucial difference between organisations that perform averagely, poorly and well. An organisation can have good workers and professionals, but without a vision that good management communicates clearly and insists upon, implementation of a policy is much more difficult. Good management, good training and a change in culture in some authorities and agencies are required. That can be achieved not by the Bill alone but by support and monitoring.
Will the authorities that perform least well be monitored more closely as we try to improve the target to 40 per cent? Who will undertake that monitoring? Will the taskforce play a role? I note from its annual report that it cannot criticise management. However, could it make constructive observations—or even criticisms—through defined channels so that the points that it notes are properly fed back to the authorities responsible for monitoring and improving standards?
I spoke on Second Reading on
The parents had another disappointment when they tried to adopt a small girl from another authority in the London conurbation. They were desperate for up-to-date information but were stalled. They also felt that they were being criticised for asking for such information. They were told over the phone, without explanation, that they were not successful. They felt guilty about that.
Prospective adopters need good-quality information throughout the process, not only when the adoption order is made. When prospective parents want to make a lifetime's commitment, they are entitled to say, "This child is beyond our capacity, but we still feel that there are children in care whom we could adopt, love and care for." They should not feel bad about that, but they do. As I said in an intervention on Dr. Harris, there are more children in care than there are prospective adopters, and we should not alienate but encourage them.
I cannot make the point about lack of information strongly enough. I appreciate that it will be included in the guidance, but it will be interesting to know the number of complaints about lack of information when the complaints mechanism is set up. Information is fundamental to successful adoption.
On resources, the Government have pledged £66 million over three years to support the changes. Anxiety has been expressed about whether that is sufficient to maintain the objectives over that length of time. How was the figure originally reached? Will it be regularly assessed until 2004–05 to ensure that the resources are sufficient? Can the taskforce make observations about the adequacy of the funding as the system gets going?
In March 2001, 55,900 children were in care. In 1997–98, 3.3 per cent. of children in care were adopted. In 2000–01, that had increased to 5.2 per cent. Two thirds of the children were under five, and a little more than 5 per cent. were 10 or older. As I said earlier, many adoptions of children in the older group currently break down. In the year to March 2001, a child spent on average two years and nine months in care before adoption. About a third were in care for three years or more before being adopted.
Those statistics are shocking, but the Bill and measures already taken will do much to improve the situation. It is much to be welcomed. Ultimately, practice on the ground will be pivotal in ensuring that significantly more looked-after children are placed in secure and loving homes, grow up to feel valued and needed and are able to take their place in society, but I commend the Bill.
This is a good Bill that has rightly been welcomed by Members in all parts of the House. Some of the thinking goes back to the Children Act 1989.
The first such Bill was drawn up shortly before the Conservative Government lost office and, as Members have said, a similar measure was introduced in the last Parliament. I was privileged to serve on the Select Committee, under the distinguished chairmanship of Mr. Hinchliffe, which contributed to changes introduced by this Bill.
I congratulate the hon. Members for Erewash (Liz Blackman) and for Stockport (Ms Coffey) on intelligent and characteristically interesting contributions, but I am pretty disgusted that the Liberal spokesman appeared to walk out of the Chamber without listening to the reply from the other side. Had he listened, he would have learned something.
The Secretary of State made the strong point that the situation among children in care is intolerable. Outcomes for such children are all too often awful: 40 per cent. of prisoners under 21 spent part of their childhood in care; a quarter of all girls in care become pregnant while they are our responsibility as wards of the state; huge numbers are on the streets; and a third of homeless people and a high proportion of children in care become drug addicts and end up paying for their habit by prostitution.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that adoption, while an extremely important placement option, is not the universal remedy for the ills of the care system? The Government have already introduced legislation and resources to address many problems in the system.
I am glad to have given way to the hon. Gentleman, who is extremely knowledgeable on the subject. He is right that adoption is not a solution to all problems and that many other issues in the care system need to be addressed, but adoptions are a far more successful solution—more than 80 per cent. succeed—than all the other options within care.
As the hon. Member for Erewash said, the number of children adopted from care has improved, but it is important to recognise, as the Government have done publicly, that the figure of 5 per cent. each year is a low proportion, and represents only about 10 per cent. of children who have been in care for more than a year, although they are the true target pool. The figure is much lower than that in America, where the problems are worse for several reasons.
On the number of children in care, is the hon. Gentleman aware that research shows that what matters is not whether they are adopted, but the permanency of their placement? Children who are placed permanently with foster carers can do as well as adopted children, provided that the placement is secure and well supported, hence my especial welcome for the new special guardianship orders.
I will go three quarters of the way with the hon. Lady, if she can forgive my phrasing it like that. I, too, welcome special guardianship orders for certain categories of particularly difficult children. Having said that, bearing it in mind that foster parenting is very well resourced—
Foster parenting is well resourced compared with adopting, which is very poorly resourced in most parts of the country. Even if the outcomes of long-term fostering and adoption are comparable, that still furthers the case for more adoption.
I shall give two brief examples of how much bad practice is still out there. Recently, "Jane" adopted two siblings in the south of England, and the contact arrangements require monthly meetings with their younger brother who is in long-term foster care. They like him and they all get on well, so he inevitably gets upset when they leave. The parents have applied to adopt him too. His social worker's response is that he needs assessing and the first step is to remove him from the stable foster home that he has been in for several years and put him in a new placement for reappraisal. Inevitably, he is showing signs of emotional disturbance.
The second example is from Cambridge. A woman who has been approved for 14 months to adopt a child aged under five is still waiting for a match, although we are short of adopters. She has recently been told that she is unlikely to get a child because she lives on a main road and a child could be seen and recognised by the birth family in the area. Presumably, she remarked sarcastically, she cannot go shopping in Peterborough centre for the same reason. No attempts have been made to consider her for adopting a child from outside the area.
I do not want to knock all social workers—I am only too conscious of what a difficult and occasionally dangerous job social work is—but as previous speakers have said and as those recent examples show, there is a long way to go to change the culture.
Much has been made of the fact that a huge spectrum is involved, from a small number of extremely good local authorities dotted around the country that achieve remarkable placement rates to the larger number with poor outcomes. That is why I continue to argue that, in the worst cases, the Government should use the provisions already available to them to take adoption from some poorly performing authorities and give it to a neighbouring authority or a voluntary agency.
The House will forgive me for going into a shopping list of several individual items, because we have been round the circuit once in the past year. I am glad to see the new Minister in her place. She has already several times taken the trouble to contact the all-party adoption group, of which I am privileged to be co-chairman.
I referred to my first point during an intervention on the Secretary of State—the provisions on race, religion and culture in clause 1(5). I do not want to make the issue hugely controversial, but there is a serious question here. No Member in any part of the House suggests that the provisions are not sensible or that they are not matters that should be taken into account in any adoption where they are relevant to the child. However, although clause 1(2) says that the interests of the child are paramount, a court may be faced with clause 1(3), which says that delay is unreasonable. What if clause 1(5) is considered alongside those criteria?
Why cannot we include the words said by the Minister of State, Mr. Hutton, in the Select Committee and by the Secretary of State on the Floor of the House rather than just having them on the record in Hansard? Considerations of race, culture, religion and so on must not be allowed to cause inordinate delay.
The hon. Member for Stockport nods. She is showing her usual robust common sense, although I hope that my saying that from these Benches will not damn her career. If it is clear that no suitable match will be found on those criteria, the time must have come to look for a good couple who do not match exactly, but who will give a child a loving home.
My second point relates to the need to protect damaged children and their new families from the birth parents. The hon. Member for Erewash said in a previous debate that if we are short of adopters, and want more to come forward, we must take account of the adoptive parents' interests. Over the past generation, there has been a trend in the courts towards adoption gradually becoming more open. A couple of senior social workers have complained about that to me, and in a sense one can understand why.
It is sometimes hard to cut all ties when birth parents have failed, perhaps for reasons that were not entirely their fault. However, in a more extreme case, constituents of mine have adopted two little boys and are making a success of that adoption. One of the children had been kept in a cellar for so long that, by the time he was adopted aged seven, he still lacked the power of speech. The other had been left out in the cold so often and for so long that at one point it was thought that both his feet would have to be amputated. That was narrowly averted, but to this day when he is upset his parents hold his feet and warm them to comfort him.
I am not suggesting that such cases are typical, but it is desperately important that we make it clear to the courts that most children who are adopted from care are adopted because their birth circumstances were unsatisfactory. An adoption may be compromised by insisting on the release of information on the new, often brave, adoptive parents who take on the children whom, as the hon. Lady said, many are unwilling to adopt. The least that we owe such adoptive parents is a guarantee of secrecy.
To move from the anecdotal to the statistical, to the best of my knowledge, the country that has gone furthest down this route is Australia, where almost all adoptions are open and it is easy for birth parents to get information on the adopters. I frequently refer to Australia because it has developed many exciting ideas in the social field, but the one area in which it has severely failed is adoption. Adoption rates in Australia are low: only 500 children in the entire country were adopted last year.
We must discourage the courts from making provisions more open. We should protect the new adoptive family by preventing the birth family from finding out their addresses and details.
The hon. Gentleman and I raised that issue when we last debated this subject. Most so-called open adoption in this country does not involve direct contact between the adoptive and natural parents. It involves postbox communication: the natural parents send a card or gift at Christmas or birthdays, and the social work department transmits it to the adoptive parents. The adoptive parents and the children they have adopted often benefit from that procedure. When we talk about open adoption, we must be clear that it does not usually involve face-to-face contact.
I accept the hon. Lady's point, but sometimes open adoption is involved. I had a particularly bad case in my county. An adoption was very close to being arranged, but to the frustration of the social workers who put so much effort into setting it up, it had to be abandoned when the court insisted on open aspects that the potential adoptive parents, for reasons that I thoroughly sympathised with, were unwilling to accept. Even the contact to which the hon. Lady referred may, in some of the extreme cases, be deeply offensive to the adoptive parents. The court should change the balance if it makes the difference between those adoptive parents taking the child on or not.
My third point relates to the independent review, which has rightly been welcomed by all hon. Members who have spoken. As my hon. Friend Dr. Fox said, we need a more precise definition of a "qualifying determination". It is critical that the definition should be extended. It should include individual matching, not merely whether or not a couple get on the list. We cannot allow an appeal in every case, so the question is about when an appeal on an individual matching should be allowed, and when not.
I suggest that an appeal should be allowed in two cases. The first is the case of foster parents who want to adopt the child but have been refused. If they have been fostering a child for a while, an appeal should always be allowed in principle. The second is the case of a couple who have been refused a match and a match is not made with another couple. In such a case, an appeal should be triggered after a reasonable period. If four or five couples want to take on the same child and are unsuccessful, they should not all be allowed to appeal. Allowing appeals in those two cases would strike a sensible balance.
The other point that came through in our Select Committee hearings was that the first part of a review should be a rapid paper appraisal. It may turn out that one of the potential adopters is suffering from venereal disease, or, to give an example raised in the all-party group, one of the adoptive parents may have told the social worker in secret without her husband's knowledge that he is an inappropriate adopter. Such cases can be quickly dismissed without triggering an expensive and time-consuming appeal.
I hope that my suggestions on how to flesh out the appeal system have been helpful. At the moment, it is left to regulation.
My fourth point is about the whole question of statistics and information. The Bill contains some welcome new provisions, which have been included since the general election partly as a result of the Select Committee hearings. However, I should like the issue to be more clearly pinned down. The sad fact is that from time to time children in care disappear, sometimes without anyone, except the social services department concerned, knowing about it. In the hideous West case, some of the children he murdered had been in care.
I welcome the new provisions that empower the Government to demand and collect statistics, and I suggest that the Secretary of State should do exactly that. I see no reason why there should not be a national database, given the IT available in this modern era and given that there are about 50,000 children in care. I am not suggesting that it should be public, like the national register.
I am grateful for the hon. Member's endorsement, as he is experienced in these matters. Every child in care should appear in that database, along with information about how long that child has been in care. That would soon show up the scandalous proportion of children in care for whom there is still no care plan.
My fifth point brings us back to lay visitors. The Children Act 1989 is very clear. There is a statutory requirement on local authorities to appoint lay visitors for all children in care who are not regularly visited by someone. Of all the provisions in the 1989 Act, that is probably the one that is ignored most often. The vast majority of children in care have no lay visitor, including the majority of those who are not visited by anyone else.
I am grateful for the support that I have received on this issue from a number of Labour Members. The Minister has been open about taking ideas on board, and this could also be included under the clause on the gathering of statistics. I suggest to her that central Government could press local authorities to provide information on how many lay visitors they have appointed, and which children have or have not got lay visitors. Lay visitors are important, and one benefit is obvious. If a child in care wants to talk to someone outside that environment about something that they are unhappy about—not necessarily anything as dramatic as abuse—and to have an independent ear, that is obviously a good thing. In more serious cases, in which something is going badly wrong, however, it is extremely difficult and dangerous for a professional employee to blow the whistle.
I remember one whistleblower in particular—a social worker, and a very brave lady. I do not want to expose her, so I will not say which inquiry was involved. After telling us in a private hearing, very bravely, all that she had done to lift the lid off a horrible scandal, she then said quite bluntly, and almost by the by, that she was now working in a completely different capacity. She had destroyed her career with that local authority. The great thing about lay visitors is that, because they are not employees, they have nothing to lose from exposing something that is going seriously wrong. I would not be cynical enough to suggest that that might have something to do with the reluctance of many local authorities to appoint them.
My final point relates to problems in the family court advisory service. The Bill already contains two clauses—clauses 97 and 98, I believe—relating to that. If I am fortunate enough to be appointed to the Standing Committee, I shall argue that there is scope for extending those clauses to sort out the unfortunate muddle generated by the establishment of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. I have received a detailed brief from a children's guardian, describing the problems that are already arising from the new body's heavy- handed approach.
The matter is complicated, and I do not want to go into too much detail. I have already detained the House for a long time. Let me, however, draw attention to one extraordinary feature of my constituent's letter, which I could hardly believe. Defending its position in court—it was taken to court and, mercifully, lost the case—CAFCASS had the nerve to argue that, as a non-departmental body, it was not bound by any statements made by the Lord Chancellor's Department on its behalf.
The immediate crisis has been averted, because the courts ruled against CAFCASS. Indeed, Mr. Justice Scott Baker used some of the strongest language that I have known to be applied to a public-sector body. However, now that an "impending disaster"—the judge's words, not mine—has been averted, may I suggest that Ministers should ask how a public-sector body has grown so big for its boots that it could behave in such a manner, when dealing with a service as vital as the guardian service? It is vital not just to children who are adopted but to all children in care—indeed, to many of the most vulnerable members of society. A grip must be taken on it, and I hope that the Bill will provide an opportunity for changes in the original legislation governing it.
Let me end where I began. This is a good Bill, and I congratulate the Government on the huge amount of work put into it. I am pleased that a Conservative Government examined the position originally, but I am disappointed that we have twice seen Bills appear and then disappear. I very much hope to serve on the Committee, and see the Bill become law during the current Session.
It is grand to have an opportunity to speak on Second Reading of what I think is regarded as a vital Bill by Members on both sides of the House. If it becomes law, it will constitute the first adoption legislation for a quarter of a century. I consider many measures in it to be long overdue, as well as far seeing and entirely necessary. I am also extremely pleased that the extra legislative commitments required as a result of the international situation have not led to another postponement of a Bill that will improve the lot of some of the most needy and vulnerable children in the country and, indeed, overseas.
The Bill represents yet another step in what is becoming a major Government commitment to fundamental reform and investment in the care system. Several others have confessed their involvement, and I shall now confess mine, as I have done before. I worked in the care system for 15 years before arriving here in 1997, keen to promote change in what I considered to be a deeply inadequate and often destructive way of looking after children in care. I am extremely impressed by the progress that has been made.
The Bill should be viewed not in isolation, but in conjunction with measures such as the Care Standards Act 2000, the Protection of Children Act 1999, the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 and the establishment of a children's commissioner in Wales, all of which build on the Children Act 1989. That is one of the few progressive achievements of the ghastly 18 years that we suffered before 1997. [Interruption.] I chide only a little.
As well as major legislation, we have seen, and are still seeing, considerable investment in such programmes as quality protects and in social work training. Attention has already been drawn to the vital necessity of ensuring that skilled, experienced and able people are encouraged to enter and remain in social work and perform one of the most delicate and difficult tasks in the public sector or, indeed, in any field.
The hon. Gentleman tempts me. Will he not admit that one of the biggest pressures on social services departments and, in particular, on child care is caused by the fact that councils are spending some £1 billion above standard spending assessment—£1 billion more than his Government think that they should spend on social services, including child services? Is that not the real problem at the moment?
It is certainly a significant problem, with which I shall deal at length later. However, if we need such services and if they are to work properly, they must be funded properly.
We have already heard some examples of the way in which social workers are viewed. I do not think that enough people will be recruited to perform this professional task—a task that requires real dedication, commitment, skill and tenacity—until the status of social work rises tremendously. I experienced life in social work under the last Tory Government and, like many of my colleagues, I felt that the profession was being denigrated and brought down. We are making progress, but there is a long way to go.
This was not intended to be a very political or controversial Bill, but will the hon. Gentleman admit not only that the gap between SSA and spending was never remotely as wide during those 18 bountiful years, but that the number of people applying to become social workers and take on child care responsibilities has fallen by some 50 per cent. over the past four or five years? Never was there such a manning problem as there is now, in any of those 18 years.
That is partly a problem of the public sector across the board at a time when the economy is going well and there are many more opportunities. When there are more opportunities for better paid and less stressful jobs, the attractions of social work pall. The Government must get to grips with that, and do something about pay levels and the standing of people coming into an important profession that is carried out in difficult, strenuous and challenging circumstances.
I agree that this should not be a party political football, but all today's speakers have professed their commitment to meeting children's needs, observing their best interests, supporting adoptive parents and recognising that people operate in very stressful circumstances. It must be professional people who take on such a delicate task and become involved in the biggest decisions it is possible to make outside the acute medical sector—crucial decisions that will have a tremendous bearing on individuals throughout their lives.
I make a last, tiny, party political point. On a personal note, I am delighted to be able to take part in this Second Reading debate. I missed out on the Bill when it came before the House in the spring because I had the pressing matter of the sixth smallest Labour majority in the country to defend. Now resplendent with the fourth smallest Labour majority, relaxing into the comfort provided by those 481 excellent souls, I hope, like Mr. Brazier, to play a full part in the passage of the Bill, which I am pleased to note has been developed by previous discussion. The Bill should receive support from throughout the House. The quality of the debate so far shows that we can make more progress collectively.
The Bill is well named as the Adoption and Children Bill because it puts the needs of children over and above those of any of the adults concerned and at the heart of the process. In accordance with the key principle of the Children Acts, the welfare of the child will be paramount under the Bill.
On that point, does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the provisions for third-country adoption may be fine for many countries, but they place children in countries that do not have, and are unlikely ever to have, our infrastructure at a grave disadvantage when it comes to finding adoptive parents from this country?
Intercountry adoption is another delicate and difficult matter, but it is a vital principle that people operate not only to the Hague convention, but to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Two countries in the world have so far not supported the UN convention—Somalia and the United States of America. If we look at the Kilshaw case in that light, that is instructive.
We want children who need substitute families to be looked after within their country of origin, within that culture, with this country supporting systems in those countries.
First, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, there are good reasons why the United States has not subscribed to the UN convention on the rights of the child, although he may not think that they are good. Secondly, writing a rule that says that it is best that a child be looked after in their country of origin is clearly not putting the interests of the child above all other interests, any more than saying that a black child should be with black adoptive parents. He must surely apply the same standards overseas as he proposes to apply in this country.
I am not sure about that. The moving of a child from one culture to another culture is an enormous step. While we have heard about the success of adoption—it is successful for many children—about 20 per cent. of adoptive placements break down. The thought of a child coming a long way away from their country to a completely different country, and all that falling down, presents a difficult dilemma for all of us.
We have heard some criticism of local authorities today, but it is important to emphasise that the Bill reasserts the central importance of local authorities as corporate parents of young people who are rendered vulnerable by a breakdown in their family support. The Bill places a duty on local authorities to maintain an adoption service in the same way that they are required to carry out their statutory responsibilities to all children in need under the Children Acts. That is of central importance.
As I have said, adoption is not a panacea. It is not an easy solution to the problems of all children who cannot grow up within their birth families, but it is a vital option for them and it is important that all unnecessary barriers to its use be removed. It is right and proper for the Bill to state that delay is likely to prejudice the welfare of children and to require courts to establish timetables for progress.
Far too many children spend their childhoods waiting for the opportunity of permanence that adoption could bring. I unequivocally welcome the Bill's proposals for an Adoption and Children Act register to build on excellent work by national adoption agencies—the "be my parent" initiative is one example—and to link children needing placements with prospective adopters across the country.
I am delighted to see the end of freeing orders and their replacement by placement orders. Children freed from their birth parents but left in a ghastly limbo without an adoptive placement have been denied a basic human right. It is excellent, proper and right that that should cease.
I have been involved in many adoptions and I know that they can work well. I have also witnessed a number of adoption breakdowns. I will never forget some of the distress that those situations have caused. There is no possibility whatever of achieving the Government's admirable aim of increasing the number of children adopted from care by 40 per cent. by 2005, and of reducing the alarmingly high number of adoption breakdowns, without a major improvement in adoption support services. In particular, older children being adopted from care carrying a legacy of bad experiences, children who have been abused—often disclosing the extent of the abuse only when they feel safe enough to do so—children with disabilities and special needs and children from sibling groups, need the support of adoptive parents, who in some cases should be paid. In many cases, they should receive realistic monetary allowances. Adoptive parents must themselves have access to effective guidance, counselling and support throughout the long, changing and challenging years of childhood and, goodness me, adolescence—that is said with feeling. The bare essential is the commitment in the Bill that local authorities must make arrangements for the provision of adoption support services.
I was pleased with the response of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to a couple of questions about the level of adoption support services and the modernisation of some complaints procedures to ensure that people had a right of appeal when apparently they were not being offered the appropriate support and services. It is clear that adoption support services and the necessity of funding them properly will be one of the key debates during the passage of the Bill.
I give an unreserved welcome to the new measures proposed for the acquisition of parental responsibility by unmarried fathers and step-parents. In particular, the latter will remove something that has unnecessarily pitted the step-parent against the birth parent, who would under current arrangements lose parental responsibility, with the unfortunate child often being forced to take sides, and the time of social workers, who would be much better employed securing and supporting placements for children, being wasted.
I am also delighted with the introduction of a new concept of special guardianship. It gives parental responsibility to a carer without removing it from a birth parent, as adoption does. It will be available to unmarried couples whereas, at the moment any way, adoption is not. A very wide range of people can apply for special guardianship, and special guardians can be eligible for support services.
Special guardianship is a new proposal for permanency. The remark by my hon. Friend Ms Munn about the importance of permanency rather than the particular nature of placement is crucial. I think that special guardianship could be one of the Bill's most important provisions, and it certainly seems to be a significant addition to the armoury of placement options. Although the proposals will benefit from further debate, I will be really interested to see how they work in practice. I think that, in some ways, the proposals will be developed further by good practice. The potential of special guardianship, especially at a time when more openness is being encouraged in permanent relationships and in permanent placements, is enormous. They are hugely significant and very good proposals.
It is a matter of human rights that those who have been turned down as prospective adopters should have access to an independent review and that those decisions are scrutinised. We have debated this issue before, and some of the examples given—especially by the hon. Member for Canterbury, who has tremendous knowledge, sincerity and commitment to improving adoption—were hair-raising. Although I am not laying claim to being a wonderful practitioner of adoption, my experience over some years was not that social workers operated in an enormously politically correct fashion; I think that they honestly tried, with poor resources, inadequate legislation and in very stressful circumstances, to do a decent job and their very best for children. They tried to meet children's needs as best they could.
Although I endorse almost everything that the hon. Gentleman has just said, two facts remain. First, there is a huge difference in outcomes between even neighbouring authorities with similar resource shortages. Secondly, and as the hon. Gentleman has made some quite party political remarks, coming from Kent, I feel particularly strongly about the shortages of resources for social services. As my hon. Friend Tim Loughton said, those shortages have become very much worse.
It is right and proper that differences in emphasis and in results should be scrutinised and questioned. There is no doubt about that.
The ghastly Kilshaw case will have reminded everyone that adoption is a service for children who need permanent places rather than for adults to meet their particular needs. We have had much discussion about cultural circumstances, language, religion and all the rest of it, but I think that the Government have got the balance about right. I really hope that the appeals of well-intentioned people who have had a raw deal from their adoption agency—of course such cases exist—will not be drowned out, and huge amounts of scarce resources wasted, by vexatious litigants who should not be allowed anywhere near children.
My real concern is that some people do not pass through a net that would otherwise stop them because there was a feeling that huge effort that could otherwise be expended in meeting children's needs had to be spent in attending tribunals and a lengthy appeals process. As I said, however, I think that the Government are striking a reasonable balance on the issue.
This is an excellent Bill but it is far from perfect. We have to have further support for adoption support services and funding. Extra funding is being provided to the service, but it is a service that has been denied the proper support that it has needed for many years.
It is odd to define the adoptive relationship, as the legislation does, as equivalent to one in which the child
"had been born as a child of the marriage", especially when single people can adopt. The reason why adoption is the most fundamental course that can be taken in the life of any child is that it removes responsibility from birth parents while placing it with someone else.
I was pleased to get a response from the Secretary of State on the importance of hearing the voices of children and young people, particularly when they are at an age to express themselves, throughout the adoptive process. As with all legislation, the Bill needs to be firmly grounded in children's rights. Children of a sufficient age and understanding need to be able to give clear consent to adoption or to any other placement option.
I think that my hon. Friend Ms Shipley is right about the importance of allowing unmarried couples to adopt. I do not understand why in this society and these days a couple has to be married to adopt. I do not see why in principle couples living together should not be able to adopt, nor do I see why there should be a prohibition on single-sex couples being able to put themselves forward for assessment. No adult has a right to adopt, but I do not see why any group of adults should be ruled out of the equation initially.
The issue of access to birth records is crucial. People should have a right to have access to their own birth certificates. The process was controversial when it was first introduced in the Children Act 1975, but I believe that it has worked reasonably well, allowing people to gain information perhaps even against the wishes of the birth parents. The system seems to be working and I agree with the principle, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
No hon. Member has yet made the point that, most important of all, as currently formulated, the Bill misses an opportunity to deal with an aspect of child care that urgently requires reform: private fostering. We should not require the Laming inquiry into the appalling death of Victoria Climbie to tell us that we must have much more effective means of registering and inspecting arrangements for private fostering backed up by the full force of law. Thousands of children are rendered vulnerable every day that the grossly unsatisfactory status of private fostering is allowed to prevail. I believe that it is imperative that the Government use the opportunity afforded by the Bill to introduce the necessary provisions.
It is with a sense of responsibility and honour that I make my maiden speech in this House. I represent the constituency of South Norfolk, and it is only right to begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, John MacGregor, now Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market. Lord MacGregor had a distinguished career. He served the people of South Norfolk for 27 years as their Member of Parliament. For 15 years of those years he was in government, and nine of those were spent as a Cabinet member. He served as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Agriculture Minister, Secretary of State for Education, Secretary of State for Transport and Leader of the House.
As many hon. Members will be aware, Lord MacGregor is also a talented magician, and not any old magician but a member of the inner Magic Circle with gold stars. That sounds a bit like the magicians' equivalent of being a member of the Privy Council—and I venture to suggest that as a member of the inner Magic Circle he was probably vouchsafed more secrets than are most Privy Councillors in the present Cabinet.
John used his talents as a magician to good effect in raising money for charity, notably when he beheaded the editor of the Eastern Daily Press, Mr. Peter Franzen, with a guillotine. He also once performed a similar service by beheading Mr. James Naughtie and Mr. John Humphrys of the BBC Radio 4 "Today" programme—although the House may be interested to know that on that occasion he used a chainsaw.
That prompted a number of colleagues to say that they were rather surprised that, having got those two in such a vulnerable position, John had not simply finished them off. To one or two hon. Members, that may sound somewhat extreme, but I cannot help reflecting that if John Humphrys knew that each time he asked a question he stood a chance of having his head severed from his body if he interrupted before the answer was complete, the quality of the "Today" programme would improve out of all recognition.
John MacGregor will be missed in this House, but I know that he will be an excellent addition to the other place, and will continue to contribute to political debate in this country.
What sort of constituency is South Norfolk? It is very rural, with an attractive and gently undulating landscape. In the north it borders the ancient city of Norwich, where many of my constituents work, and in the south are the beautiful market towns of Harleston and Diss, and the River Waveney, which borders the county of Suffolk. In the east is the town of Loddon, an architectural gem, and in the west is Wymondham, the largest settlement in the constituency, which has a magnificent abbey dating from the 12th century and the Market Cross where markets have taken place since the 13th century. To this day, the Market Cross is used for the Wymondham farmers' market, which has recently been rejuvenated following the foot and mouth crisis, and provides an excellent opportunity for local farmers to sell their meat and other produce at a much better price than they would get from the supermarkets.
In the far west of the constituency is Hingham, without question one of the most beautiful villages in Norfolk, where one Samuel Lincoln lived until 1637, when he emigrated to the new world, settled in Hingham, Massachusetts, and became the direct lineal ancestor of perhaps the greatest of all the American presidents, Abraham Lincoln.
Local services and the infrastructure in the constituency are improving, but there is some way to go. The dualling of the A11 creeps forward slowly. Norwich is now the only major city in the United Kingdom without a direct motorway link. The residents of Long Stratton cry out desperately for a bypass.
As I speak, the new Norfolk constabulary building is being completed in Wymondham, and will provide a welcome home for the constabulary, who have been dispersed among 10 or 11 different administrative buildings. They will now be in one, which will, I am pleased to say, save the taxpayer money. That will not, however, alter the problems of police recruitment and retention, which are caused by the fact that police officers spend so much of their time filling in forms and so relatively little out on the beat.
The new Norfolk and Norwich hospital, which has just been opened, is just outside my constituency, in that of the Minister without Portfolio, Mr. Clarke. Many of my constituents use that hospital, and many of them work there.
I endorse the comments of the chairman of the police authority, Mr. Jim Wilson, who wrote to the chief executive of the Highways Agency yesterday to express the serious concerns of the emergency services—not only the police but the ambulance service—about the lack of a suitable link road to the hospital. That issue has been running for many years; the problem was both predictable and predicted. I shall certainly add my weight to the cause of sorting it out soon, and finally getting the Highways Agency to take it seriously.
There are excellent schools in my constituency, one of which is Wymondham high school. I had the pleasure of visiting that school last week to present the prizes at the awards ceremony, and I hope that it will be third time lucky for its third bid for specialist performing arts status.
I could not possibly talk about my constituency without mentioning agriculture, which locally is very significant. Although it employs only 6.7 per cent. of the labour force, that is still three times the national average. Of course, agriculture has suffered hugely. We were lucky enough not to suffer from foot and mouth directly, but we have suffered many of the indirect effects. We did suffer directly from classical swine fever, and there has been a huge reduction in agricultural employment in the constituency.
In the east of England, 3,600 jobs were lost in the agricultural sector in the year to last May, and more than 1,100 of those jobs were in Norfolk. The average farmer now earns only £5,200 a year—and I must add, in case anyone thinks that cereal farmers are somehow exempt, that the situation is even worse for them; they are now facing one of the greatest crises for two generations. I have joined many of my right hon. and hon. Friends in pressing the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to apply for the agrimonetary compensation that is available from the European Union so long as she applies by
The local economy is much more diverse than the focus on agriculture would suggest. There is a wide variety of other activities, from services to manufacturing and electronics. Anyone who has ever moved house has probably used a box made by Bux Corrugated, a well run factory in my constituency, which I had the pleasure of touring with the managing director the other day. The firm has family-friendly policies; indeed, it employs different generations of the same family. Anyone who has ever had a car with an airbag has probably unknowingly bought products from Hamlin Electronics, which provides the sensors that cause an airbag to explode if necessary.
Lotus, the car manufacturer, is one of the largest employers in the constituency. Its plant is quite near where I live, and I am looking forward to visiting it shortly and testing out its wares on the fast track—just to ensure that they are safe for my constituents, of course.
I have been advised that in a maiden speech it is unwise to try to make more than one substantive point about the Bill before the House. I shall try to stick to that, and I thought that it would be best for me to expand on the point made by Liz Blackman, whom I am sorry to see is no longer in her place. She said that we must stop putting off prospective adopters. That is certainly true, particularly with ethnic minorities.
A paper in the journal Adoption and Fostering on initial agency responses to black prospective adopters makes it clear that people are often put off and lost at the initial inquiry stage because of negative initial contact with a variety of agencies. They may be lost not only to the agency to which they first applied but to adoption and fostering in general.
The study continues:
"Not only that, but offended inquirers will often tell their friends, and other potential adopters may never even reach the stage of an initial approach, if they feel they are going to be rebuffed".
The British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering noted:
"It is important that workers understand the 'ripple' effect of negative and positive contact first experienced by individuals. Experiences are quickly shared within communities and decisions are made based on this information as to whether particular agencies are worth approaching or not."
The study goes on:
"A January 2000 survey of 150 black people by The Voice revealed that 75 per cent. of respondents were put off by negative prior experiences, either their own or those of friends, in their dealings with social services . . . Comments included: 'I'm a barrister, I earn a good wage, yet I'd expect to be treated with disregard initially because that's how I've seen them treat other black people'; and 'Many of my friends had the impression that because I was black and single I would not be eligible so I didn't bother'. In response . . . BAAF's Marcia Spencer commented:
'Black families are willing to come forward but it's a question of how local authorities welcome them, how the process is explained and how individuals and families are supported through it.'"
There have been a number of references to the subject of same-race adoption, and whether it is better than other options. I listened with interest to the comments of Ms Coffey, and I tend to bow to her experience because she has seen many adoptions at close quarters. Same-race adoption may well be better, but that should not exclude other possibilities.
Indeed, the Department of Health's guidelines do not exclude the possibility of other options. On the contrary, they state:
"Any practice which classifies such couples"— that is, people who are not of the same ethnic origin as the child—
"in a way that effectively rules out the adoption of a child whose origins differ from either or both prospective adopters is unacceptable."
Although the two may appear to run counter to each other, there is no reason in practice why one could not both do everything possible to encourage more families from ethnic minorities to become prospective adopters and, at the same time, heed the other important point in the guidelines, that not enough attention is paid to the factor of time. The guidelines state that
"there is a common perception among too many in the field that efforts to rehabilitate a child should be constrained by no timetable: that every effort should be made and all possibilities exhausted to try to secure the return of the child to his family—no matter how long it might take . . . Such a perception lacks proper balance. Time is not on the side of the child."
If the hon. Lady is right, it is sad, because she can be right only if people take into account factors of race and ethnic origin that should not matter. I often reflect on the words of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, which apply in the context of adoption and which could cause Conservative Members to think twice about the questions of same-sex adoption and unmarried adoption—although I do not offer a definite view on the issues. He said:
"Hold no one insignificant and nothing improbable for there is no one that has not his or her place and nothing that has not its moment."
Those are words that I shall carry with me in the House and try to remember as I do the job of Member of Parliament for South Norfolk. I thank the House for its indulgence in listening to me and I thank the people of South Norfolk for sending me here.
I congratulate Mr. Bacon on his maiden speech. It was amusing and interesting, and I wonder whether he will practise magic tricks like his predecessor. I was also interested to hear his reference to the Lotus car factory in his constituency, because I have the TVR factory in mine. Perhaps after his visit to Lotus we can compare the vehicles, although I admit that I did not actually climb into one on my visit to TVR and I certainly did not drive one away. I also congratulate him on choosing this important debate for his maiden speech. He highlighted some issues that I shall address shortly.
I support the Bill and its purpose in reforming adoption law, especially the aims of improving the performance of the adoption services and enabling more children to enjoy a stable family background. I had the pleasure of speaking in the debate in the spring on an earlier version of the Bill, so I am pleased that the revised Bill has been introduced so quickly after the general election.
In the intervening period, I have talked to my local adoption agencies to see how much has changed since I served on Lancashire county council's adoption panel. Some things have changed and some have remained the same, but the issues that were relevant to me as a member of an adoption panel all those years ago are still relevant to the aims of the Bill and the changes that it seeks to make.
I recollect that one major problem for the adoption panel on which I served was that there were too few babies and too many adopters who only wanted babies. That has not changed. One of the adoption agencies in my constituency told me that they had just one approved adopter who was willing to take children up to five. They had not a single approved adopter for children over five, but three quarters of the children on their list waiting for placement were over five. That is an enormous mismatch. To make matters worse, an appallingly high percentage of the children on the list suffer from serious health problems. Many have been born to mothers with drug and alcohol problems, or other problems, so even the babies on the list were not "attractive" to the prospective adopters who wanted babies.
The challenge to the Government in achieving the commendable targets that they have set for the legislation is to attract more adopters who are suitable to adopt the children who are now waiting on the list and who desperately need families. That will not be an easy task. Most people still think of adoption as involving babies and have a rosy image of the child they will have and the family life they will enjoy. However, as many other hon. Members have pointed out, the majority of children presenting for adoption are older and many have special needs, be those arising from disability, ill health or the trauma of their background.
I would be interested to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister about any initiatives to recruit more prospective adopters. Like many other people, I watched with interest the advertisements for the police in which stars of the small screen urged people to become police officers and described the importance of the job. It is also important to attract adopters for the children who are languishing in the care system, so let us have an exciting recruitment campaign for their sakes.
I also recollect well the financial pressures experienced by the adopters and by the agencies dealing with adoption. I therefore welcome the additional funding announced by the Government in the White Paper, but it is important to emphasise that adoption is an expensive process for councils. The payment of inter-agency fees and the costs of finding and supporting families can reach £16,000 a year per placement. The paradox is that the more successful a local authority is in recruiting families, and in dealing with other agencies to support those families, the more it costs. I hope that Ministers will consider carefully the extra money that will be made available. The £66 million sounds like a lot of money, but it may not meet all the needs that the Bill will generate.
It will also be important to consider the financial consequences for prospective adopters. If we want to recruit more prospective adopters, we need to take into account the fact that some people will need financial support, especially if they are to care for special needs children, children with disabilities or sibling groups. I hope that we will take those factors into account.
When I was on the adoption panel, I remember considering form F—and I have a copy here. It highlights all the areas that social workers have to consider when assessing prospective adopters. Other hon. Members have already mentioned the importance of appropriate assessments of prospective adopters. Most of the social work reports that I saw concentrated on why the individual or couple wanted to adopt, how they saw their role as adopters and how they thought that they could cope. The new form, however, emphasises competencies, some of which are highly commendable. The first requirement, under the heading "Caring for children", refers to
"An ability to provide a good standard of care to children which promotes healthy emotional, physical, sexual and intellectual development throughout childhood and into adulthood."
How do prospective adopters prove they have that wonderful competency? There is a long list of requirements, but the one that stood out referred to
"An ability to sustain positive relationships and maintain effective functioning through periods of stress."
I wish somebody would tell me how that can be assessed, especially as a social worker must not only give evidence but identify gaps and develop an action plan.
Social workers are often accused of making prospective adopters jump through hoops to achieve the desired end. I worry that some of the areas that social workers are assessing and the extremely detailed range of competencies that are required may overwhelm many people. We must ensure a careful balance, with a thorough assessment procedure that identifies the skills necessary to be able to care for the sort of children who are now presented for adoption that does not put off people who could and should come forward as prospective adopters.
There have been changes over the years but mistakes are still made. Some months ago a constituent came to see me about a Child Support Agency problem. She was having great difficulty in getting any money out of the father of her children. She told me about the violent relationship that she had been in and also that her husband, who is now on his third marriage, had been approved as an adopter. She expressed concern that a man who had court orders against him for harassment, who was not allowed to see the children of his first or second marriages because of his violent behaviour, had been approved as an adopter, and that he and his new wife had adopted three children.
This had occurred in the early 1990s. I contacted the local authority—which was not in Lancashire, I hasten to add—about the issues that they had taken into account and whether they had looked into this man's background. The adoption agency had not contacted his second wife, the children, the doctor, the police or anyone who had had any dealings with him. I sent the agency copies of court records detailing the man's awful behaviour. There were even taped 999 calls from this poor woman, made as her ex-husband was beating her up. None of that was known by the adoption agency. So although in my long experience on an adoption panel I saw immensely detailed assessment forms asking all sorts of questions, in this case the right questions were not asked.
Perhaps the key is not to have very long forms but to ask the right questions to ensure that we have the information that we need to reassure ourselves about the ability of prospective adopters to do the job. People who are not suitable to look after children must not slip through the net. We should remember the case highlighted by my hon. Friend Mr. Lepper. Poor John Smith died, aged only four, at the hands of his prospective adopters.
One area in which I am pleased to see some improvement since my days on an adoption panel is the time scale for dealing with adoption matters. I spoke in an earlier debate of my concern for five, six or seven-year-olds who came to the panel for adoption and were much more difficult to place. For many families, a breakdown had occurred when the children were babies, when they would have been snapped up by adoptive parents all over the country. However, the social workers, in following the requirements of the Children Act 1989, attempted to reintegrate the children with their families. Those attempts failed, the children went back into care, the social workers tried again and failed. Years went by as the children's plans were disrupted by reintegration attempts. The children were disturbed by the time they appeared on our books for adoption, which made it much more difficult to find prospective adopters. I am therefore pleased that the Government have new guidelines on improving the time scale for considering cases.
Social workers in Blackpool who deal with the adoption services operate as part of the Manchester consortium, which they find helpful in identifying prospective adopters. It is also one of the pilot areas implementing the new national standards. Although those social workers welcome the new timetable and the speeding up of procedures, they are concerned that placing a child within six months might be fine for a 10-month-old but more difficult when it comes to placing a 10-year-old. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State consider whether that time scale is realistic in all cases? Perhaps we cannot be hard and fast in all cases, although I urge that there are no built-in delays, as I have seen the result.
There are sometimes delays in adoption medicals. Many of the children who present for adoption in Blackpool come from families who have moved into the town and whose records are held elsewhere. Simply getting medical and other records from local and health authorities elsewhere in the country can be time consuming. However, those are not insuperable problems. They should not distract us from the Government's excellent initiatives in setting national standards, which are an important step towards introducing national practice standards for social workers. The Government have commendably legislated to introduce quality standards in all other sectors—day care, children's homes and old people's homes—but the commissioning of services needs to be considered in more detail to ensure nationally defined standards so that wherever children and prospective adopters live, acceptable standards will be implemented.
I wish to emphasise the point that I made in an earlier intervention. Although improving adoption services is vital, adoption is only one part of the wider picture and will not be suitable for all children. I welcome the proposals in the legislation for the special guardianship orders, but for some children long-term foster care or residential care is the appropriate placement. That is certainly true for many older children; many teenagers have experienced a traumatic family life, when either their own or a foster family could not cope with them. Such children respond to the communal setting of a residential care home where they are supported by qualified staff.
Finally, I pay tribute to those social care staff who support children across the range. They work extremely hard, offering support to children and families in need, to foster carers, to prospective adopters and to children who are in a residential setting. Usually, we hear about their hard work only when something goes wrong, but in 99.9 per cent. of cases nothing goes wrong and they do an amazingly good job with clients who are often difficult. Those staff deserve our support. Many of the Bill's provisions will offer the social care profession much needed support, so I commend the measure to the House.
Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, I point out to the House that time is running away and there have been several long contributions. A number of hon. Members want to catch my eye, so in order that, if possible, everyone can make a contribution, shorter speeches would be welcome. 8.1 pm
I shall certainly endeavour to meet your request, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It was in any case my intention to be brief, not least because I am only too conscious of the excellent contributions that have already been made—often based on a degree of experience—so I do not want to repeat them.
The debate comes on the heel of Second Reading debates held towards the end of the last Parliament. I join my hon. Friend Dr. Fox in paying tribute to my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman on the introduction of her private Member's Bill. There is a sense of irony among the adoption community that a Bill intended to limit the delays in the adoption process has itself been subject to what appear to be repeated delays. If we can make progress and see this Bill swiftly through to a happy conclusion, it will be much appreciated.
May I also say a word of appreciation to my hon. Friend Mr. Bacon on his maiden speech? I enjoyed it, not least because I know his area reasonably well, although I had not realised about Abraham Lincoln's line of descent. My hon. Friend was modest enough not to note that Abraham Lincoln always described himself as a conservative.
I do not want it to appear that my support for the Bill has diminished. As colleagues have said, the measure is a good one and deserves support, but by its nature the subject will always bring out issues that we have to address, some of which have already been highlighted. I want to touch on some of them in the hope that they can be followed up during the Bill's passage.
The first point is that the Bill—rightly—is designed to put the interests and welfare of the child in paramount position, as does the Children Act 1989. However, that means that the legislation can override the necessity to seek parental consent. I want to look carefully at how we set about that in the measure. What message does the legislation send?
Clause 50 makes the circumstances clear. One of the criteria is that
"the welfare of the child requires the consent"— of the parent—"to be dispensed with". That is simply to reiterate the primacy of the welfare of the child.
The explanatory notes refer, in the section on the welfare checklist in clause 1(4), to the importance of the child's relationship with the parents and their ability and willingness
"to provide the child with a secure home and meet his needs".
That is indeed important. For these purposes, the word "parent" is subsumed within the word "relatives".
However, the nature of the decision to proceed with an order in circumstances where parental consent is withheld is not quite the same thing as assessing a relationship with other relatives—whether they are able instrumentally to offer a secure environment or to meet a child's needs.
Mr. Dawson compared the tests on placement orders to those on care orders. That is a relevant factor, but the decision on an adoption order is a different matter from the tests that have been applied to care orders. Although it is important that there should be a threshold and, in legal terms, "significant harm" might be a good starting point for such a threshold, it would be better to provide that a threshold beyond significant harm needs to be found—perhaps one that looks to the long-term harm that might result to a child who continued a relationship with birth parents. It would thus be a positive decision by the court and the authorities and agencies concerned when a parent was deprived of their consent in that way.
Even during the short time that I have been a Member of Parliament, cases have come to my attention in which the process has taken so long that adoption has become inevitable. The process involves children being put into care with parents allowed only restricted access—doubtless for good reasons—to the extent that, in one case, almost three years on, the mother has, by the court's ruling, lost contact with the child because only limited access was allowed. I warmly welcome my hon. Friend's suggestion that the courts should be required to establish a higher standard for depriving a parent of their child. I also welcome the proposal in the Bill that there should be much—
From the way in which my hon. Friend Mr. Turner was developing his point, it would have been a good speech. I agree with him. Mrs. Humble rightly pointed out the difficulties associated with delay. That reminds me that I came first to these issues, in the House, when considering the second report of the Select Committee on Health on children looked after by local authorities. Earlier we were discussing the best option for children. That Committee made it clear that if children are taken into the care of a local authority, the best option is for them to re-establish their relationship with their birth family. Nothing we say in the debate should detract from the driving objective of the Children Act 1989 and all of our remarks should be seen in that context.
I want to reintroduce that balance, while recognising that in the Select Committee the problems that we encountered were mainly to do with delay. It was obvious that in some cases it would never be possible to reunite or re-establish the birth family. However, there were often delays and, as the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood rightly said, the length of time that can count as reasonable delay varies according to the age and circumstances of the child. Unhappily, there were sometimes great delays in the cases of very young children that wholly vitiated what might otherwise have been successful early adoptions.
My second point relates to the wishes of the child. The explanatory notes for clause 126 make it clear that the rules of procedure implemented by the Lord Chancellor's Department would be intended to ensure that the child should be a party to any order proceedings. I hope that, even at this stage, it might be possible for the Government to consider whether the intention that they have expressed can be built into the legislation in some way.
My third point, which other hon. Members have mentioned, involves giving due consideration to religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background. I disagree with what Dr. Harris, who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, said about religious persuasion. How religious persuasion might form part of cultural and other background issues has to be borne in mind, and no hon. Member would dispute the necessity of giving such matters due consideration, but in circumstances that I have encountered in my constituency, such decisions can translate into a hangover involving the idea that we are looking for adoptive parents and the relationship with adopted children to mimic to the outside world the sense that those children are indeed the natural children of those parents. In many circumstances, that may not be the intention of the adoptive parents or the adopted child.
In this day and age, when families live in so many different circumstances of mixed-race backgrounds, ethnicity and so on, we should not be hung up on the desirability of appearing to mimic natural families when considering adoptive circumstances. It is important therefore to consider the nature of the circumstances that can be provided by those parents who put themselves forward to adopt. It is not that we should be colour blind in any sense, but if adoptive parents can satisfactorily show the agencies that they are aware of the differences in the cultural background of the potential adopted children and how they can sustain them, there is no reason why we should not support that. A degree of political correctness is involved in trying to stop that happening or in getting that balance wrong. We should certainly seek to signal—in debating the Bill, if not in its text—the desirability of shifting that balance.
The final issue that I want to raise is that of non-married couples. In thinking about the legislation and in raising the issue with the Secretary of State after Ms Shipley, I was aware that if we say we must try not to be politically correct because we must consider the welfare of the child—and, in many instances today, the welfare of children may well involve the potential adoptive parents showing that they can look after the children and can give them a loving background regardless of the fact that those children may not come from the same ethnic or cultural background—it should logically follow that that also involves doing so in relation to the status of the adoptive parents themselves.
I may be challenging those on both Front Benches about an issue that they perhaps want to duck for the time being, but the freedom of the Back Benches allows one not to have to duck such issues, and the logic of our approach—putting the welfare of children first—suggests that there are circumstances in which we should accept adoption by unmarried couples because they can provide the loving home and the stable surroundings in which children can be adopted successfully.
I am not so blinkered as not to understand that there are married couples whose marriages will not be sustained, who cannot necessarily provide the long-term stable circumstances as well as unmarried couples, who may well show in all reasonableness that they can provide those circumstances. Where that is the case, we should allow such adoption.
Indeed, we should also accept that there may be couples whose inability to remarry, for religious reasons or otherwise, may be a perfectly reasonable explanation of why they could not marry to make themselves a couple available to adopt. Although there may be a presumption that couples should seek to marry to provide the best circumstances in which to bring up children—I hope that it is common ground around the House that marriage provides the best circumstances in which to bring up children successfully—those are not the only circumstances for successful adoption, nor necessarily the best for any individual couple. Not all couples can meet that test. If they cannot, we should not necessarily debar them from being a couple who are available to adopt.
If we are living in the real world—Ms Munn alluded to this—the truth is that many couples are adopting when they are not married. Even same-sex couples are adopting, and they are clearly not married. The issue of civil partnerships, which was discussed a few days ago, is neither here nor there; the issue is whether the agencies can consider the underlying intentions, circumstances, competencies and the loving environment that a couple can provide. If they can provide all that, we ought to make adoption available to them.
I congratulate Mr. Bacon on his maiden speech. Interestingly, he chose to speak in the debate on adoption and managed to refer much to rural affairs, whereas I made my maiden speech on rural affairs and managed to speak about adoption, so perhaps we have something in common.
Adoption raises strong feelings and emotions. After all, it is about our very identity—our families are important to us all. I talked about my father in my maiden speech, and several other hon. Members spoke about their fathers in theirs. We share physical similarities with our families. I have met adopted adults who say that they felt like strangers in their adoptive family because they did not look like the people whom they lived with. They felt that physically and, perhaps, in respect of their aptitudes. We should not rush into thinking that adoption can easily resolve the problems of many children.
I have probably betrayed in my previous interventions that I have had long experience working in social services, and I believe strongly that, where children cannot live with their own family, adoption provides stable families where children can feel a sense of permanence and grow up.
In any legislation on adoption, we need to recognise all three aspects of the adoption triangle. As has been made clear time and again in the debate, adoption is, above all, about children and their needs, but we must not neglect the needs of birth parents and their families, or the needs of adoptive parents and their families. Ensuring that all the interests are addressed is not easy, but we must seek to do so.
I welcome the opportunities that have been taken in the Bill to bring adoption legislation into line with other measures and practices and to deal with other problems in legislation and child care practice. For example, as other hon. Members have said, the welfare of the child should be paramount and the welfare considerations have to be set out. The Children Act 1989 was enacted 10 years ago this month, so it is time for legislation that takes account of those points.
I also welcome the fact that, under the Bill, local authorities should have a clear plan about the adoption services that they will provide, so long as that forms part of the existing children's planning requirements and is not additional to them. Like my hon. Friend Mr. Dawson, I welcome the replacement of freeing orders with placement orders, because they have been a huge problem in recent years with delays and the consequences for birth parents. However, such legislation is complex, and I hope that the Committee will consider in detail how placement orders will work in practice.
The clauses on parental responsibility will improve matters for unmarried fathers, allowing them to gain parental responsibility more easily, but, crucially, they will provide an alternative way for step-parents to gain parental responsibility, while leaving the legal relationship to both parents intact.
Adoption support services have been well discussed. I welcome the assessment for those services and, in particular, the additional money that is being spent, but as has been said, the concern is that the amount spent might vary in different areas.
It is tremendously important to recognise that adoption involves a lifelong commitment. Children who are placed at the age of three, seemingly without any problems, will inevitably experience more difficulties in adolescence because of their earlier experiences than children who have always lived with their natural families. To have services that adoptive parents can approach without stigma, without feeling that they have failed or thinking that the child is at risk of being taken back into care is crucial. Not only must those services be properly funded, we must consider how they are organised. There may well be a strong role for the voluntary sector.
Meeting the needs of children today and into the future is important. We have heard that legislation on adoption is introduced only once in a generation, and we are here to consider such legislation. Most children who require adoption today are from the care system. They have complex needs and they are often older children. We need to ensure that there are sufficient adopters available for them.
We have heard much about the delay in placing children and I want to draw attention to a significant aspect of that problem. When the Children Act 1989 came into force in 1991, considerable effort was put into moving children through the system. Good outcomes were achieved and children were moved through the system quite quickly. Over the years, the process has become much more complex and I was greatly concerned by the fact that the courts would—often at the request of parents' solicitors or guardians ad litem—ask for detailed assessments from psychologists or psychiatrists while disregarding the information that social workers could already bring to the process.
It was galling when the report of a psychologist, which might be produced with three months' delay and at excessive cost, said exactly the same as the report of the social worker who had known and worked with the family for several years. That problem must be tackled. In the areas where I worked before the general election, some of the judiciary attempted to deal with it. We must ensure that that happens much more widely.
I welcome the proposal for a national adoption register, but it is still not clear how it will relate to the existing consortiums in which good adoption agencies have put in place arrangements to ensure that there can be an exchange of adopters between areas. That would help avoid the cases mentioned earlier in which people could not adopt a child from the same area because of contact issues or because an exchange of photographs had taken place. I am not clear how the arrangements that already exist relate to the national adoption register, and we must also consider inter-agency fees.
I especially welcome the special guardianship orders, which will meet the need of some children for stability and security. Research has shown that the sense of permanency that a child has in a relationship—and not the fact that a child is adopted—determines the outcome. A child who feels permanently part of a foster family can and will do as well as a child who is adopted. Orders that will give people who care for children day to day the responsibility for decisions are important.
Unmarried couples will be able to have an order made for special guardianship, and that creates an anomaly for unmarried adopters. We need to recognise that society today is different. Some people have a philosophical objection to getting married, and I know that some people who had lived together for several years got married solely to become adopters. In a process that relies much on honesty and trust, the state should not be asking people to go through a ceremony in which they do not believe simply so that they can become adopters. The issue is those people's commitment to each other and to the child, not whether they are married.
We have heard much about poor practice. It is sad that Members of Parliament often get to hear about cases only when things have gone wrong. I have seen much good practice over the past few years and, in my experience, common sense is as common among social workers as it is among other professionals, probably including MPs. Adoption work involves much common sense and, in the area where I chaired an adoption panel, it was not unusual to have adopters who smoked or who were overweight. The medical practitioner on the panel would always issue the regular cautions and we would not place a child with asthma or a chest infection with a smoker. Smoking, however, was not a bar to the process.
Similarly, age was not considered to be a bar to adoption. Our main concern was whether prospective adopters were likely to live until the child reached the age of 18 and thus see the child grow up. That gave us the leeway to consider people in their early 50s as adopters. As we know from the experience of hon. Members, it is not unusual for men to become fathers in their 50s.
On religion, we have heard about how we should avoid political correctness. However, in my experience, one is often so desperate to find an adopter for a child of a complex background—one parent might be British and the other from an ethnic minority—that one does not take a politically correct approach. One looks for the best possible match and for people who can meet the child's religious, linguistic and cultural needs even if they are not necessarily of the same religion. I cannot refer to individual cases, but such decisions are taken in practice. We should not get carried away with the view that social workers and adoption panels are all terribly politically correct and seek pure solutions; that is not the case.
Despite my view that social workers and adoption agencies generally use their common sense, it is important that the adoption process is fully transparent. The public need to understand what goes on and how a decision can be reviewed if they are unhappy about it. People who put themselves forward to adopt feel incredibly vulnerable because they must disclose much personal information. If we want more people to come forward, we must ensure that they understand the processes involved and why they are asked about their experiences of growing up. They should be empowered through the process so that they understand that we are trying to ensure that they are matched appropriately with a child and that the needs of all are met.
I want to refer briefly to the Government's commitment to increase the number of children adopted. I sought to achieve that laudable aim in my work where appropriate. However, I am concerned about the statistics. Although they give a general idea of how well a local authority is performing, it is difficult to be exact. The figure is compiled by comparing the number of children who were adopted in a specific local authority in one year with the number who remained in care on
The authority that I worked in before I was elected had on average 120 children in care. However, throughout a year the total number of children who came into and out of care was nearer 180. Some of them were never going to be candidates for adoption. They might have come into care for short periods only and were often successfully rehabilitated home. To take the figure of success as the number of children who were adopted as a proportion based on one day of the year can give a misleading picture, especially if the number of children is as small as 120. In that authority, a large number—six, I think—were adopted in April. Had they been adopted in March, the proportion would have changed significantly. Although that may be an indicator, it can be misleading to get hung up on the target or the actual number.
I also welcome the suggestion that the Bill should include private fostering.
Overall, I welcome the Bill. It contains many measures that will improve the lives of children and their families, including those who need adoption, those who are already adopted and those for whom security and permanence are important but adoption is inappropriate. People who speak out and who lobby on the subject are seeking what is in the best interests of some of our most needy children. I trust that as this positive Bill proceeds, debate and thorough consideration will ensure that it is improved even further.
I begin by placing one or two facts on the record. More than 58,000 children are in care and the number is rising. Each year, only about 2,900 are adopted. Yet children who grow up in care are four times more likely to be unemployed, 60 times more likely to be homeless, and make up one in four of the adult prison population. It is obvious to everyone across the political spectrum that something needs to be done. About 92 per cent. of adoptions are successful, although that statistic decreases for children who are adopted when they are a little older.
We often hear of postcode prescribing and the need for the famous level playing field. That is a consideration in this matter as much as anything else. The quality of adoption services depends on where people live. Every commentator would agree that there is a dire and urgent need for conformity across the board, regardless of where a person resides. There is also a long-overdue need to bring services up to speed and to improve standards throughout.
I am not making an oblique criticism of local government, social workers or anyone involved in the sector, but some local authorities operate a Cinderella service. There are usually two main reasons for that. First, some people who hold sway in social services departments have almost a culture of objecting to adoption. Secondly, the resource implications make it difficult, if not impossible, for local authorities because of the huge financial pressures and the need to prioritise. Time and time again, the service is the loser.
When I served on the Standing Committee that considered the Family Law Bill in 1996, there were many and varied debates on the resource implications. Everyone who read the Bill readily appreciated that those implications were substantial. The Government did not heed our concerns and the upshot is that several aspects of the Family Law Act 1996 have yet to be implemented. That is a great shame; the legislation is fairly good, but the resources did not follow the words. Several hon. Members have made the telling and important point that this Bill has substantial resource implications. The Secretary of State said that £66 million would be provided. Is that new money? If so, how much will go, for example, to Wales? What will be the average amount that local authorities will receive?
The message is clear—we cannot duck the issue by not providing proper resources. Clause 3 says:
"Each local authority must continue to maintain within their area a service designed to meet the needs" of people affected by the process. Unfortunately, for various reasons, many local authorities are not providing a sufficiently good service. If they were, there would be no need for the Bill. Many do not have adequate resources and, for the reasons that I outlined a moment ago, they do not prioritise as they should. In Wales, unitary authorities are probably too small to deliver specialist services, and they have not co-operated as it was hoped that they would.
I welcome the broad drift of the Bill. The paramountcy given to children's welfare in clause 1 is very important because it brings the Bill into line with the Children Act 1989. The Bill upholds important principles, and the reference to ethnicity and language has resonance in Wales. Welsh is the dominant language in much of the country, and I hope that the Bill will assist in placing Welsh-speaking children with Welsh-speaking adoptive parents. The same consideration should be given to the important factors of ethnicity and religion. If it is possible to achieve a match, that is all well and good, and if it is impossible, that is fine too, as long as an effort has been made.
I declare an interest as a so-called parliamentary ambassador to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I believed that one day, when I left politics, I would like to be the Welsh ambassador to the Bahamas, but at least I have already reached ambassador status, albeit in a rather dank climate. The reform is overdue, and the NSPCC gives a generally warm welcome to the Bill. It says that the speeding-up of the process should not be at the risk of failing fully to assess and meet the needs of children. It also notes that permanency for children can be achieved in several ways, and long-term foster care may be an appropriate alternative to adoption. Ms Munn, speaking from experience, made that point.
The Adoption Forum is concerned about the lack of an independent appeals or review procedure for prospective adoptive parents who are turned down. The provisions in clause 12 do not provide that independence. It also states that the current complaints procedure is insufficient, pointing out that it is difficult to complain directly to the body about which one is making a complaint.
British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering also welcome the Bill. It points out that the inter-agency fee, which other hon. Members have mentioned, is a significant problem in Wales. BAAF has set up a consortium of nine local authorities, which help each other on a no-fee basis. As hon. Members have pointed out, the inter-agency fee can be substantial—anywhere between £12,000 and £16,000.
I welcome the national adoption register. I have to say that since the implementation of the Children Act 1989, there have been immense improvements in the court system. Courts have speeded up legal procedures involving children and proceedings are properly timetabled. I speak as a barrister who practises in child law. The checklist approach in the Bill will be useful because time is of the essence when young children are involved. We have a good body of magistrates, district judges and county court judges who are expert in child law, and we must educate those people and give them in-depth training when the Bill is implemented.
The United Nations convention on the rights of the child emphasises the right of a child to be consulted. The Bill's intention is to increase adoption, and I hope that it will also increase consultation with children, particularly older children. It is crucial that older children have their say in what happens to them. That was emphasised in the response of the organisation Children in Wales to the draft Bill. We must also emphasise that targets are but targets. They must be set with great care and resource implications must be taken into account.
I had a list of issues that were of concern to the all-party adoption group, but Mr. Brazier dealt eloquently with all of them in his speech. However, I should like the Minister who winds up to repeat the point about the £66 million.
I conclude by adding my voice to those of many hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber who have said that the Bill is welcome. It needs to be improved in Committee and I am sure that it will be. The debate has been of a fairly high standard, and I am sure that during the Bill's passage we shall be able to put politics aside and work as best we can together, keeping the welfare and needs of children nearest to our hearts. In that way, we shall be able to improve the Bill and make it the landmark legislation that it should be.
The main focus of the Bill is the reform of the adoption process, but it would also amend the Children Act 1989 in respect of child contact. The focus of my speech will be the latter issue, to which speakers in previous debates on the Bill paid little attention.
Clauses 88 to 91 provide for restrictions on arranging and advertising children for adoption other than through adoption agencies, and prohibit certain payments. A self- confessed techie, I have watched with alarm the growth of e-adoption—a net nightmare with pictures of babies for sale over the net, and of course a black baby is cheaper than a white one. We must go further to stamp out such practices, using means similar to the internet taskforce report on child protection to investigate further, but for now those clauses are most welcome.
The Bill provides for amendments to the Children Act 1989. Clause 106 in part II amends the Act to increase the parental responsibility of unmarried fathers. I welcome the clause—of course it is right that fathers, wed or otherwise, take responsibility for and have contact with their children. That must, in most cases, be in the best interests of the child.
In all our consideration of the Bill and as we have agreed tonight, the protection of the child must be paramount. That is what the Bill is all about, but I believe that we are in danger of passing into legislation a measure that might inadvertently put children at greater risk. The 1989 Act was designed to make the interests of the child paramount, but many believe that it is failing, and failing dangerously. Most professionals agree that the Act is in need of amendment.
As we seek to increase child contact with unmarried parents, we must examine how child contact arrangements are currently working. In amending the 1989 Act, we must ensure that we establish full safeguards for the protection of the child. I fear that the Bill does not do that and I would like it to be amended accordingly.
To see why amendment is needed, let us examine the current position in respect of child contact orders made for couples who were married. The Amica—Aid for Mothers Involved in Contact Action—study in 1999 of 130 parents subjected to domestic violence found that 76 per cent. of their children were said to have been abused as a result of contact orders issued by the courts.
A recent survey carried out by the Women's Aid Federation found that courts are failing to protect children, who are being put in danger as a result of contact orders being granted to abusive parents. The survey also found that despite new guidance being issued to the courts, the situation has not improved. We hope that the Government now accept that there is an urgent need to amend the Children Act to ensure the protection of children involved in private family law proceedings.
Why is it essential that we take account of domestic violence? It does not occur in only a small minority of cases—the national snapshot of domestic violence showed that every minute, police in the UK receive a call for help because of domestic violence. We know that such violence features even more prominently in contested contact cases. According to Home Office statistics, every year an average of two women a week are killed by their partners or ex-partners in England and Wales. In recent years, several children have died as a result of contact arrangements.
I shall refer to a few of the cases that have been reported in the media or are known to refuge projects. Daniella Hurst, who was aged two, was killed by her father during a contact visit in Lincolnshire on
Daniel Brinnan, aged two, was found dead with his father after a contact visit on
In taking up the issue, the all-party group on domestic violence, which I chair, has been guided by the voices of survivors. In the first ever parliamentary online consultation between survivors and MPs, "Womenspeak", we received powerful proof of the urgent need for change. I understand that that e-consultation has made this Parliament a worldwide leader in e-democracy and is being referred to in conferences around the globe. That is well and good, but the point of the consultation is the need to listen to the real concerns of survivors who made a desperate plea for help in protecting their children.
In our online consultation, more than 90 per cent. of contributions that referred to child contact said that either the child or mother suffered from domestic violence. I ask hon. Members to listen to their experiences. One contributor, Sharon, said:
"After he was released from prison for stabbing me, he saw my daughter at the probation office, under supervision. After a while they persuaded me to let him have her on his own. Things went okay for a long while, but then when she was eleven she became very depressed and unhappy and tried to get out of seeing him. It turned out that he had started hitting her on the contact visits."
Most women felt that the courts did not take into account the domestic violence or the experiences of the child and mother. The presumption in practice that child contact is always in the best interests of the child needs to be reviewed where there is domestic violence. I ask hon. Members to listen again:
"My daughter witnessed me being held down by my partner, when I was seven months pregnant. He knelt on me and held me by the throat. My daughter was eleven at the time. She came from behind holding a skateboard high above her head and was trying to hit him with it. But she was so afraid that she might hit me that she threw it at him and ran upstairs and locked herself in my bedroom where she called the police. This has mentally scarred her and she will never forget that night."
That message was from Vanessa.
The recent review by the Advisory Board on Family Law Children Act sub-committee on the death of Georgina McCarthy tells us that the system is not working. Child contact orders were made repeatedly by the courts, which ignored warnings from social workers and others that her husband posed a serious risk to her and her children. Sadly, they were right.
It has been argued that court practice has improved since the Court of Appeal judgment last year and that changes to the Children Act 1989 are consequently unnecessary. However, Women's Aid's most recent report makes it clear that child contact orders continue to be granted even when there is evidence of violence or abuse to the child.
The Bill could make it easier for abusive, unmarried fathers to obtain contact with their children. Women's Aid and the all-party group have repeatedly requested that the two issues should be tackled simultaneously to ensure proper protection for the child. The Children Act 1989 has been distorted by case law to the extent that it can no longer protect children.
Some judges agree. In Re H and Others, the House of Lords ruled that the more serious the allegation, the higher the standard of proof that the court should require. Two of the five Law Lords involved in the case dissented. Lord Browne-Wilkinson stated:
"My lords, I am anxious that the decision of the House in this case may establish the law as an unworkable form, to the detriment of many children at risk. Child abuse, particularly sex abuse, is notoriously difficult to prove in a court of law. The relevant facts are extremely sensitive and emotive. They are often known only to the child and to the alleged abuser. If legal proof of actual abuse is a prerequisite to a finding that a child is at risk of abuse, the court will be powerless to intervene to protect children in relation to whom they have the gravest suspicions of actual abuse but the necessary evidence legally to prove such abuse is lacking."
Lord Browne-Wilkinson clearly considers that the ruling has made the Children Act 1989 unworkable.
Women's Aid can cite cases of enforced contact when there was good reason to believe that a child had been abused. The organisation is also aware of several cases in which direct contact has been ordered despite strong suggestions of child sexual abuse:
"Eleanor's daughter was very disturbed after a contact visit and told her mother that she had been sexually abused by her father. Medical tests were done and Social Services decided there was enough evidence to prosecute the father, but just before the trial the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the charges, stating that the child, aged five, was too young to give evidence. The father applied for contact again and this was granted even though the judge was aware that the child had been sexually abused and did not want to see her father, aware that this man had served a six month sentence for assaulting his wife and aware that he had broken numerous injunctions. A penal notice was served on Eleanor to force her to comply."
Providing the sort of protection that we are discussing for our children would not be new. New Zealand has legislation on contact, residence and domestic violence. It establishes a rebuttal presumption that residence and unsupervised contact will not be granted to someone who has been violent in the family unless the court is satisfied that the child will be safe. It also enforces a mandatory risk assessment checklist, which forms the basis of all welfare reports.
The Bill could make such a provision, alongside the amendment to grant parental responsibility to unmarried fathers who register the birth of the child. Without it, there is a fear that the measure will make it harder for refuge projects to protect children of unmarried, abusive parents.
Why should English children have less protection from violent parents in child contact situations than their counterparts in Northern Ireland? There, courts are required to consider the risk of harm. The Family Homes and Domestic Violence Order 1988 is our equivalent of the Family Law (Northern Ireland) Act 2001, which provides that when a violent person who has abused the child's primary carer applies for contact with the child, the court has to consider the risk of harm to the child, including harm arising from seeing further abuse of the primary carer, in deciding what, if any, order to make. That provision was introduced in Northern Ireland as a result of consultation to fill a perceived loophole in protecting children. It is patently unfair and dangerous not to afford similar protection to our children in England.
Several children's charities, including the NSPCC, Barnados and National Children's Homes, support our call for an amendment to the Children Act 1989. We shall have few, if any, opportunities in the Session to amend it to ensure that no more children suffer the trauma, violence or abuse associated with domestic violence. How many more names of murdered children do we need before we provide the protection that other children have?
It is humbling to speak in such a debate when so many hon. Members have real expertise. I am thinking particularly of the hon. Members for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn), for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) and others who have a lot of professional experience. I have none whatever.
I was drawn into the subject, like many of us I suspect, mainly through personal experience of casework. One case was a blatant example of age discrimination by a local authority, which was eventually and painfully resolved by the intervention of the then Minister, the Financial Secretary. Another example involved frustrated inter-racial adoption, which eventually became a running column in The Mail on Sunday. The fact that the process seemed unable to handle such bitter, difficult cases led me into the subject.
The hon. Members for Erewash (Liz Blackman) and for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), in an excellent maiden speech, referred to the status and importance of adopters—if there are no adopters, there can be no adoption. It is naturally important that we build in all kinds of safeguards to protect children and essential that the Bill builds in the paramountcy of the child, but without the adopters, the measure will not work. Does it make sense to include a provision that recognises encouraging adoption and valuing adopters as fundamental strategic objectives?
I am struck by the fact that the headline for the only press publicity given to the debate is, "Couples who flout adoption laws face a year in prison". The message is that there is a community of potential adopters out there, all of whom are slightly dodgy and some of whom are looking for ways to break the law. That sends the wrong message to a community that we should do everything to value and encourage. We could achieve that through legislative drafting.
I welcome the appeals process, although as the hon. Members for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) and for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and others pointed out, the details are hazy. I felt sufficiently strongly about the inadequacy of the appeals system to initiate an Adjournment debate on
It is important to consider why an appeals process is necessary. Most adoptions—about 94 per cent.—go through without any problem. About 6 per cent. are disputed or fail. In many ways, that figure represents a considerable understatement, because a lot of adopters do not want to take issue with their local authority for fear of prejudicing their future position. I suspect that the area of unhappiness is considerably larger.
Why does the existing process not work? Several points have been made, but there are others. One is that it is difficult for someone with a failed placement or who has been rejected from an adoption list to take issue with the local social services authority, because insurance companies put strong pressure on local authorities never to admit liability. It has become standard practice for local authorities never to admit a mistake, as they would prejudice their insurance cover, so it is impossible to achieve a sensible dialogue between frustrated adopters and a social services department that has rejected them.
Such people could proceed to the ombudsman, but the ombudsman will deal only with maladministration, not unfair judgments. They could go to judicial review, but that is hard to secure, expensive and time consuming. That is why an appeals process is necessary, and I must make a few points about it.
Charges, were they to be introduced, could discourage a lot of legitimate appeals. They could also prejudice and distort the outcome. We need to be careful about the way in which charges are imposed, particularly as they might be onerous due to the cost of setting up a tribunal system.
Furthermore, the appeals must be wide ranging and not just cover a dispute between a potential adopter and a local council. Many others—third parties, for example—might want to enter an appeals process. A recent abuse case highlighted the fact that a doctor was unable to bring to bear evidence based on personal observations of a prospective adoption case. Whistleblowers should have access to the appeals system, which needs to be widely couched.
I was a little worried by the tone of the Government's comments on intercountry adoption. The only hon. Member who addressed this issue coherently was the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre, who tried to explain why potential intercountry adopters encounter such a wall of resistance. This country is extremely unfriendly towards intercountry adoption. In France, 3,600 such adoptions are arranged each year, whereas there are only 300 in this country. People trying to go through the intercountry adoption process are treated with great suspicion by their local authority, and by Government Departments, if they get that far.
There are often good reasons why people want to engage in intercountry adoption. Many people travel widely, work overseas or are familiar with an overseas environment, and it is perfectly natural to want to adopt a child from that country. There are, increasingly, cases of mixed marriages. Couples of different nationality, where one spouse comes from an overseas country, may find it culturally easier to adopt from that environment. It is entirely proper that they should be allowed to adopt, provided that the process is properly supervised, that those countries have a proper system of vetting, and that we observe international conventions, such as the Hague convention or the United Nations conventions. Intercountry adoption should be encouraged. Such couples are providing a child with a home, and the fact that it is not a British child is not the last word on the subject.
The Government must use a more positive tone on intercountry adoptions than they have in the past. It has acquired a negative connotation, which is completely inappropriate. By including in the legislation extraterritorial provisions that require other countries to satisfy British as well as international standards, the Government are building in an unnecessary barrier.
Finally, I want to take up a point that was usefully made by the hon. Member for Canterbury, which related to joined-up government. The process of taking an adoption to its conclusion involves the crucial court stage in which the ad litems are key people. As he observed, CAFCASS and the Lord Chancellor's Department have got themselves into an appalling tangle over the terms of contracts of those 2,000 people, such that half of them have resigned from their contracts. He kindly placed the responsibility on that parastatal organisation, but I think that the problem lies with the Government, especially the Treasury, which is driving this policy. It is an Inland Revenue-driven policy to try to force this small group of people off self-employment and on to full-time contract terms for tax reasons. It is totally inappropriate to the work that they do, and the end product has been that a small but crucial profession has, in effect, been destroyed. The judicial review may overturn that, but extraordinary administrative incompetence could undermine the continuity of the Government's policies on children, so I hope that they will reconsider the matter.
Despite those qualifications, I agree that this is a good Bill. It is long overdue, very welcome and will enjoy support from all parties.
I welcome the Bill, because we are all confident that it will become law, unlike White Papers and draft Bills from the previous Labour Government and the Conservative Government before them. Bills always came at the end of a Parliament, and the fact that this Bill has been introduced at the beginning of the Parliament gives us confidence. As no general election is pending, we will be able better to consider some of the more difficult issues, especially the question of whether unmarried and same sex couples should qualify for adoption. The point that Mr. Lansley made was well articulated. If an election had been pending, we would have all vied for the chance to show which party was the most family friendly. As we are at the beginning of the Parliament, we shall be able to give the issue better consideration.
Parliament has waited a long time to change the law on adoption—since 1976. More importantly, the children have waited for far too long. We have heard comparisons between adoption and remaining in the care system. We are told that 75 per cent. of children in care leave without any educational qualifications. Children in the care system are apparently represented disproportionately in prisons, and are disproportionately found to be living rough. We should, however, compare the adoption legislation with what was the law earlier. Children who had been abused in all manner of ways were expected to stand on their own two feet after leaving care at 16. The position of those in adoptive placements is bound to show in a better light.
I am proud that we have changed the law. The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 raised the leaving age to 21, and to up to 24 for young people in education or training. I believe that in years to come we shall be able to compare today's figures with figures demonstrating a far more favourable system for children in care.
Practitioners in the field welcome the Bill. Before proceedings began in the Special Select Committee of which I was privileged to be a member, I sat down to discuss it with social services staff from Medway council, one of the local authorities in my area. They reacted warmly to the Bill. Not just children, not just Parliament, but practitioners have been waiting for legislative changes.
We criticise practitioners, but to some extent it was Parliament that allowed political correctness to manifest itself during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it did nothing to build a better framework in which more children could enjoy the love and happiness provided by adoptive families to which we have all referred today. I do not think it right to point the finger at any one group involved in the process of adoption.
Let me record my thanks to the Medway council staff, who were very informative about the Bill. Medway was judged to be among the top 10 authorities in terms of social services, and fostering and adoption are two of the key indicators. We should give praise where it is due.
I welcome proposals to speed up the court process, and to establish a timetable. When I was a social worker, delay was built in—not necessarily by the panel or the process in which my colleagues and I were involved, but by our having to wait time and again for yet another expert's report. As has been said, the reports for which we waited generally reached a conclusion similar to that reached by the social workers. There would then be a residential study, followed by a further study.
I remember a case involving the removal of a child at birth. In some ways that is the most painful experience for a social worker, especially a social worker who is also a parent. We cannot help empathising with the mother, while perhaps also feeling that it is for the best, given what has happened to other children. The case took 18 months to resolve, and no one can tell me that that has not had a profound effect on the child. Fortunately the child went to fantastic adoptive parents, but the process took 18 months. We all know from remembering our children at the same age that they have been shaped enormously by their families and their experiences; being taken away from foster carers is bound to have a profound effect.
I welcome the timetabling, but, as one of my hon. Friends said earlier, we should monitor it. It is all very well to set a timetable, but what is most important is what actually happens.
On Second Reading of the Bill debated in the last Session—I have reread the report of it—many passionate speeches were made, similar to those that we have heard today. Frequent reference was made to the 58,000 children and young people whom councils had to look after. We should not assume, however, that a child will not have a fulfilling life just because he or she remains in care. Sometimes we almost say that children in care are condemned, and that is not true: many children in care flourish. Of course, it is preferable for them to have a loving family relationship in permanency, ideally in an adoptive relationship, but we have other measures, especially the special guardianship order, which I welcome. Adoption is not a panacea. There are alternatives in which children flourish.
Moving children to an adoptive family can often appear the easiest solution, but research shows that, where children can remain within or be returned to their natural family, and an assessment can be made that that is good enough—it may not be good enough for us as individuals—that is the best for them further on in their lives.
My hon. Friend Mr. Dawson referred to privately fostered children. The Victoria Climbie inquiry is taking place at the moment. The tragic circumstances in which that child died and the failure of all agencies to protect her have been well recorded, but there was a failure not just of the agencies but, again, of the legislative framework. We do not know how many children are privately fostered. Report after report, including those by Lord Laming and by Sir William Utting, have said that we must have far more rigorous inspection and registration of that particular group. We require child minders and day centres to register with the National Care Standards Commission, yet we do not have the same rigorous inspection regime for children who are looked after full-time, often when their parents are abroad.
I am sure that Lord Laming will make the following recommendation. He mentioned it in the other place during the passage of the Care Standards Bill, as did other noble Lords. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre did so during the Committee stage of that Bill. We called on the Government to look more closely at the way in which we monitor privately fostered children. There is a golden opportunity to look very carefully at the legislation and to ensure that those vulnerable children living on their own away from home are properly protected.
I applaud the Bill. I was involved in the process for many years prior to coming to the House and the delays were appalling. The effects on children were equally appalling. All of us should recognise that legislation should have been in place, but this Bill has been welcomed by practitioners, by all those operating in the field, and not least by the children who need permanency.
I shall extract certain comments from my speech to enable another hon. Member to follow me.
The Bill says relatively little about birth parents, especially where adoption is opposed. I understand that about 60 per cent. of adoption proceedings are opposed by parents. We heard some gruelling accounts from my hon. Friend Mr. Brazier of dreadful suffering at the hands of birth parents, and from Mrs. Humble of repeated unsuccessful attempts to reunite a child with its parents, but they are not typical, and we should be careful not to generalise.
Local authorities are large professional organisations and birth parents are individuals. They are laymen. Under stress conditions, they depend totally on representatives at adoption hearings and their chances of success are poor.
We also hear little about sibling groups and the advisability of keeping them together. I have been very surprised at a case in my constituency. I defer to hon. Members, who obviously have much more expertise in this sector than I have, but there is no presumption in favour of the birth mother up to the point of adoption, even when the problems that led to children being taken into care have been overcome, even if she is now in a stable and established relationship, even if the new partner wants the children back as well and is equally committed, even if the home circumstances have improved and are now suitable for family life, and even where the prospective adoptive parents have rejected one of the sibling group. The children's wishes are to be returned to the mother.
I was surprised to learn that local authorities put more weight on the period, in this case 10 months, which the remaining siblings have spent in the pre-adoption placement. That begs the point that longer periods will influence the outcome of adoption proceedings and that the length of the pre-adoption period is outside the control of the birth parents. If there is a good chance of the reunited family being successful, surely that would be the best outcome for the children: to be with their own siblings and their birth parents.
Clause 44 states that an adoption order will "extinguish" the birth parents' parental responsibility. It is an irrevocable transfer from a child's birth family to the new adoptive family. Adoption should therefore be for only those children who cannot live with their birth families. I should like the Bill to include greater protection for sibling groups, ideally keeping them together, and for the birth parents and their rights when circumstances have changed, before the adoption has been formalised. I suggest that greater protection on both those points would be in the best interests of the child.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. Like many other hon. Members I very much welcome the fact that the Government are legislating on adoption. I also acknowledge that the opportunity to legislate on adoption tends to arise only once in a generation. Consequently, it is so important in the most personal sense to thousands of children and adults that we get it right and that the principles on which we base this legislation are sound and founded in common sense and compassion. I think that the Bill certainly meets those criteria.
In the generation since the House last legislated in this area, there have been many human stories not only of hope but of pain and sadness that have arisen from the operation of the United Kingdom's adoption services. Certainly it is right that the welfare of the child throughout its life is at the heart of the Bill. However, as other hon. Members have said, we have to ensure that we maintain the correct balance in what has sometimes been called the eternal triangle, or the holy trinity, of adoption: the child, the adoptive parents and the natural, birth parents. I therefore very much welcome the Secretary of State's announcement today that a Special Standing Committee will consider the Bill. I also welcome his open mind on adoption by unmarried couples.
In the short time that I have to speak I shall concentrate on only one element of the trinity, the natural or birth parents, whom some hon. Members have already mentioned. I do so because, like probably every other hon. Member I have encountered, as a Member of Parliament, many tragic, heart-rending, human stories of adoption, of couples who are desperate for a child being deemed too old or unsuitable for reasons that are beyond their ken or anyone else's understanding and of children who are lost in care with no hope or love. It is right that the Bill seeks to help them.
One particular case of a constituent of mine whom I first encountered while working for my predecessor has led me to take an interest in the subject and to participate in this debate. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to remember as the Bill is developed and honed that birth parents can be victims too and are sometimes little more than children themselves when they first have to deal with the system.
My constituent's story spans a large part of that generation since the House last legislated comprehensively in this area. She was very young when she had her second child, a girl, in the early 1980s. She was devastated when her daughter although not her older child, her son, was taken into care. At first she thought that it would be a temporary situation caused by her circumstances, but as time went on she was told that as the bond had been broken her daughter would not be returned. Over the years she had three more children, whom she brought up herself, but she always felt terrible anger, guilt and confusion about why her daughter had been taken into care and never returned.
The daughter was in foster care for several years, and eventually placed for adoption. My constituent opposed the adoption, because she still wanted her daughter back, but she felt powerless to oppose the system. She first came to me in the mid-1990s when I was working for my predecessor. By then her daughter had been adopted and was in her teens, but my constituent was still filled with a burning desire to understand what had happened to her.
On behalf of my predecessor, I helped to get hold of what records we could from social services. They contained an unexpected bombshell: before being placed with potential adopters, the daughter had received criminal compensation for having been abused in foster care. This information had never been released to my constituent either when it was discovered or when she contested the adoption in court.
Understandably, my constituent was devastated. Surely, she asked me, social services must have had a duty of care towards her. She felt guilt, anger and betrayal. However, when she took her case to a lawyer, it turned out that things were not that clear. There was no case law to establish that the local authority owed her any duty of care as the parent of a child who had been taken into care and placed for adoption.
At the very least, the Bill should ensure that adoption services owe a duty of care to birth parents as well as to adoptive parents and to children. I would be grateful if the Minister would comment on that when she sums up. If not, could the idea be considered in the Special Standing Committee?
I welcome the fact that the birth parents are considered in the Bill, and also the introduction of the proposals for special guardianship. In particular, I welcome the fact that under clause 3, adoption services will have to meet the needs of natural parents, and that under clause 4(1), there is a change from the previous version of the Bill in that birth parents are now included in the requirement to carry out assessments of need for adoption support services. However, I am concerned that there is no absolute duty to provide that service, even when a need has been recognised.
In addition, we need to be sure that the Bill does not lead to courts feeling almost compelled to dispense with parental consent even in the most marginal of cases. The House was reminded earlier in the debate that the departmental review of 1992 specifically excluded the paramountcy principle from a decision to make an adoption order without consent. I hope that we shall be able to examine that issue carefully in the Special Standing Committee.
The removal of parental rights is one of the most dramatic possible actions affecting individual rights. It is right that such orders should be made when they are clearly in the interests of the child—but we must ensure that in developing the Bill we do not create an atmosphere in which social services departments and courts feel under almost irresistible pressure to press for adoption even when, with support, a child could remain with its natural family.
I am not talking about allowing a child to be bounced back and forth within the system, as in the example so clearly and eloquently illustrated by my hon. Friend Mrs. Humble. That has happened too often in the past; it should be stopped, and the Bill will go a long way towards doing that. However, when we consider individual cases, we should approach general adoption targets with caution. The welfare of the child demands that the system should be swift, but let us be sure that it is also just.
The Bill would benefit from being strengthened to include opportunities to initiate renewed contact with adopted adults. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give some assurance that the Bill will not remove the rights of birth relatives to apply for an order under the Adoption Act 1976, which the Bill replaces, to require the Registrar-General to disclose information. She will know that that concern has been expressed by the National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and Parents.
I also hope that my hon. Friend will consider the possibility of strengthening the Bill to create a more active service for those seeking contact in adulthood. Let us not forget that such people are often siblings who have never met their brothers or sisters. I hope that she will tell the House that the Bill will offer something for them.
The point made by Dr. Harris that no one has the right to subject their legal father to a DNA test was especially fatuous. The point is not whether adopted adults should be able to prove that their DNA matches the male name on the original birth certificate, but that they should be able to discover, broadly, their personal story. Perhaps Liberal Democrats are especially sensitive on that issue, which might explain the illegitimate political tactics that they adopt locally. That is a long way of saying something very short.
Adoption is a subject that touches the lives of our constituents in the most profound and personal ways. It is a subject that raises issues of the deepest human resonance—childhood, family, love, our own sense of belonging and mortality. I have listened to the debate and read the reports of previous debates in Hansard with much admiration for the commitment and expertise that hon. Members on both sides of the House bring to the subject. I hope that on this occasion—perhaps even more than on others—the debate will be studied closely by Ministers and used to improve and enrich this highly commendable Bill.
In the few moments remaining, I wish to welcome many aspects of the Bill and the changes that have been made to it since the Second Reading of the earlier Bill in March, in which I took part.
It is important that we remember that we only ever hear of the times when social services fail. We never hear when they are successful in placing children into care, providing good homes and ensuring that they are brought up in a loving family. It is of course right that we hear about the times when social services fail, because the consequences are so horrendous, and it is right that such cases should be investigated. However, we should also remember the many occasions when social services get it right and place children where they are brought up successfully.
I pay tribute to foster parents and the work that they do. In today's society, we must unfortunately think carefully about the damage done when a malicious accusation is made against a foster parent. Such accusations can take social services a long time to investigate—a point that has struck me particularly.
I ask the Minister to pay particular attention to the role of grandparents. They can have an important role in caring for their grandchildren, especially those who have been neglected or forced into the care of the local authority perhaps because of drug abuse by their parents. I find that I can go a long time without experiencing a case involving drug abuse and then suddenly I deal with two or three similar cases. I recently dealt with two distressing cases, which I outlined in March, and I do not intend to repeat the details today.
Time is short, but I wish to make one point to the Minister. Clause 2(6) mentions
"such other services as are specified in regulations (which may include financial support)."
I understand that the use of words such as "may", "possible" and "responsible" can be not wholly definitive. My point for the Minister is that local authorities should not be able to decide the level of support, because they will want to take many other issues into account. When grandparents take on the responsibility of bringing up children, they should receive an allowance, especially if they go the whole hog and become adoptive parents. The Bill is not clear enough on that point and I hope that the issue will be considered in Committee.
I hope that when the Bill returns for Report and Third Reading it has been further improved. If that is the case, the Government will have done a great service to those many thousands of children who are at the moment in the care of local authorities but whom we would all like to see in the care of families.
We have had an excellent and well informed debate, in which all right hon. and hon. Members have spoken with a great deal of personal experience. I feel greatly under-qualified to respond.
We appear to have no lack of recruits to the Special Standing Committee and the Standing Committee that will follow this part of the Bill's proceedings. Ms Coffey, a member of the Select Committee who has a great deal of experience in fostering and adoption, mentioned the need for clarification on placement orders and overturning parental consents. She said that any delay in the procedure prejudices the child's welfare.
Liz Blackman, another member of the Select Committee, welcomed the independent review mechanism in the Bill and said that the 40 per cent. target was perhaps ambitious. She questioned, quite rightly, the adequacy of the resources being rolled out in the longer term to finance it.
My hon. Friend Mr. Brazier, a highly qualified speaker on the subject and another member of the Select Committee, queried the thrust behind clause 1 and other early clauses. We will have a lot of fun and games debating those in Committee. He made helpful suggestions about when the appeals procedure should be triggered.
Mr. Dawson, a former social worker, showed considerable understanding of the issue and then ruined it all by blaming the whole thing on 18 years of Tory rule. He almost redeemed himself by his pertinent references, echoed by other speakers, to the problems of private fostering.
My hon. Friend Mr. Lansley queried clause 50 and rightly said that the tests applied to the adoption order are different from those applied to a care order. He reinforced the need to flag up the threshold. He then went on to speak about other issues, which I will duck.
We then heard from Ms Munn, another speaker with social work experience. As I said, I feel woefully inadequate in responding to the debate. She mentioned the need to bring the legislation up to date to make it compatible with the Children Act 1989.
Mr. Llwyd described the detailed extent of the problem. Margaret Moran gave a grisly catalogue of violence during contact visits. Mr. Shaw, another person with great experience in social work and dealing with children, said how much time is wasted in the process, and that that needs to be addressed. My hon. Friend Angela Watkinson rightly flagged up the problems with sibling groups and consideration for birth parents. That point was echoed by Kevin Brennan. Finally, my hon. Friend Mr. McLoughlin said, with characteristic succinctness, how right it was to mention the successes of social services. People never want to read newspaper stories about the plane that landed safely. That attitude also applies to social workers, because many cases go well. He also made a pertinent point about the role of grandparents, with which I am sure we will deal in Committee.
That has put me off. My hon. Friend may lack the professional prestidigitational qualifications of his predecessor but he shows immense early promise in keeping all his balls in the air at the same time, as one would expect from someone who lists his recreation as "words". Alas, we will not be seeing a recreation of the BBC chainsaw massacre that his predecessor attempted, but he started well with talk about the motorway link for Norwich. From a shopping list of concerns, early pleas for the transport infrastructure in one's constituency always go down well. With a name like Bacon, it is hardly surprising that he takes a close interest in agriculture.
It is always profitable territory to list and give a plug to some of the businesses in one's constituency and their products. So when my hon. Friend started talking about Bux Corrugated and Hamlin Electronics airbag sensors, I was a little confused until he mentioned Lotus and the prospect of a doggy bag. May I offer him a friendly word of advice and remind him at this early stage of the existence of the Register of Members' Interests? He will no doubt prove a worthy successor to John MacGregor, whom we all miss in this House.
The Bill is welcome on both sides of the House. It has been introduced belatedly—four and a half years after the Government came to power—and only after a friendly push last March from my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman. However, the Bill is good news. We know that because the Secretary of State is here in person: in contrast to the invisible man act of last week after the disastrous news about accident and emergency services when he was nowhere to be seen, refused to make a statement to the House and refused to debate with us head to head on the media. We are glad that today he is making up for his invisibility last week.
We welcome the Bill. We also welcome the use of a Special Standing Committee, a procedure that previously proved so useful in the form of a Special Select Committee. However, we do not welcome the Government's apparent need to timetable this complicated measure and we question why they are taking that course. We shall certainly vote against the programme motion.
The sense of urgency for the Bill has been heightened by the current spate of cases involving the death of young children in terrible circumstances. The most high profile cases were, as we have heard, those of Victoria Climbie and of John Smith. He died in my constituency and until last Monday his parents were my constituents. He died in 1999 on Christmas eve from severe brain haemorrhaging, caused by blows like those normally seen on a battered boxer. He suffered 54 visible injuries at the hands of Simon and Michelle McWilliam, including adult bite marks and having his hair torn out.
The McWilliams were prospective adopters after that child had been for 17 months in the happy foster care of parents elsewhere. The McWilliams pulled the wool over the eyes of Brighton and Hove social services department during 20 home visits by social workers. Furthermore, the danger signs were not acted on by health service staff.
Last Monday, the McWilliams were sentenced to eight years each after an emotional jury foreman had delivered the guilty verdict. However, they were charged only with child cruelty. The weakness in the law is that they were not charged with murder or manslaughter because it was not possible to pin the blame on either one of them, despite the fact that Sussex police and the Crown Prosecution Service were satisfied that the child was murdered. The problems of joint enterprise in such cases must be tackled urgently by the Government.
Obviously, the social services department made mistakes and action is now being taken, but the subsequent report—released last Tuesday—highlighted claims from Mr. McWilliam's first two wives about his violent and cruel tendencies towards them and the children. It noted that he had changed his name twice and that Mrs. McWilliam had five police convictions. None of that was known to social services, but it was easily uncovered in the space of one hour by the author of the report.
A major consideration in the Bill, and relevant to those current cases, is the full and thorough investigation of the background and suitability of prospective adoptive parents. We need to examine those failures by social services. As I noted, Brighton and Hove has taken action and has been praised in reports elsewhere, but there are no excuses. Ministers are aware of the enormous pressures on social services departments throughout the country. I have mentioned previously the £1 billion standard spending assessment overspend and the fact that social services recruitment has fallen by 50 per cent. and that in London and in parts of the south-east vacancies are running at 30 per cent. in certain child care sections of social service departments. In this case, it is not good enough merely to take the "not me, Guv" approach of naming and shaming as the Secretary of State did, shamefully, at the social services conference in Harrogate 10 days ago.
When we scrutinise the Bill, it is essential to ensure that the system can cope with the additional responsibilities, duties and structures that will be placed on social services departments. We are all in favour of expanding the number of children who pass through the adoption system, but not at the expense of compromising the quality of the service available and the safeguards to be carried out.
There are already questions about the adequacy of the ring-fenced funds supposedly attached to the many new requirements under the quality protects programme, for example, and about the adequacy of the funding for the operation of the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 when it is eventually implemented. The Local Government Association has expressed legitimate concerns as to the availability of new funding for the increased work load that will be placed on social services, which are currently spending £1 billion above SSA as I pointed out.
We must ensure that there is proper resourcing for the pre-adoption and post-adoption support services, which represent such an important part of the Bill. We must ensure that we take account of the differential pressure on those local authority social services departments that are deemed to be under-performing and where their pool of prospective adoptee children have more complex physical, behavioural or ethnic characteristics.
We fully concur with the need to address the logjam in adoptions, to increase the numbers adopted each year and to speed the process for babies in particular. The current average of two years and nine months waiting time for looked-after children is far too long. We are constantly reminded that, in 1970, 20,000 children, no less, were given up for adoption in this country, whereas in 1999, the figure was some 4,100—barely 20 per cent. of that 30 years ago. But the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State tell us that, by using public service agreements, they want the number of adoptions from looked-after children to increase by 40 per cent. or, ideally, 50 per cent.
That is all very well, but it needs to be handled sensitively and we must not validate a system which falls into the usual trap under this Government of setting targets for everything and priorities for nothing—all the more crucial with adoption, where the slavish adherence to targets could result in social service authorities that approach the year end having fallen behind on their target average fast-tracking certain less appropriate adoptions without the necessary quality controls, purely to spruce up the figures.
As we have heard, the circumstances have changed dramatically since 1970. The 1960s represented the high-water mark of the dash for adoption, and babies were usually snatched away from teenage single mothers, amid a culture of institutionalised opprobrium. We must never return to that climate of Victorian taboos. Similarly, we need to dismantle the insidious forces of political correctness that have put obstacles in the way of perfectly good adoptive parents being given the opportunity to offer a stable home to vulnerable children on the irrational grounds of age, weight, being smokers or because of the ethnic compatibility test.
The nature of the adopted children has also changed dramatically in those years. They tend to be older children with a history of more complex disabilities or behavioural problems, and there are particular pressures in finding placements for sibling groups, as we have heard from various hon. Members. The pool of prospective adopters has shrunk because they have been put off by the PC brigade and because other ways of producing a family exist through IVF and other means. However, it is essential and right that at the heart of the Bill is the overriding consideration that the welfare of the child is paramount. That will achieve consistency with the Children Act 1989 and mean that the welfare checklist is applied.
In scrutinising this technical Bill, with its 135 clauses and 6 schedules, we shall seek clarification of much of the detail. We would like to have further detail on the test of paramountcy over reasonableness, as my hon. Friend Dr. Fox has mentioned, and on the need to avoid deterring struggling parents from seeking outside help if there is a heightened risk of unsought adoption. We should consider the timing of permanent placement decisions following on from children being looked after, because the quality of the test is much more important than the length of the delay.
We will want to consider the workings of the welcome addition of the appeals panels, who sits on them and at which stages of the adoption process they kick in. We will also want to know what form the extra support services for adopters and adoptees will take and the availability of proper training for the people involved.
What will happen to a social services department that is deemed to be failing in its adoption targets? What about the mechanics of the proposed special guardianship status as an alternative to adoptions, and how does it relate to target setting? We will also want to consider the need to allow the voluntary sector to continue to play a full and important role and not to encroach further on the generosity of voluntary adoption agencies, which currently subsidise adoption services to the tune of £3.5 million a year and provide 20 per cent. of the placements.
No doubt, we will return to the ubiquitous problem of the respective balance of rights between the adopted child, the adoptive parents, the birth family and the rights of disclosure of information to each. No doubt, in all our deliberations, the paramountcy of the common-sense approach will be frequently scuppered by the requirements of the European convention on human rights.
We welcome the strengthened penalties on unauthorised intercountry adoptions. It is absolutely right to clamp down on cases involving internet twins, for example, but we shall be interested to discover how the Secretary of State plans to regulate hyperspace in that respect. So the Special Standing Committee has a lot of work to do—this is a big technical issue.
The Secretary of State said earlier that it is not up to politicians to determine the suitability of adoptions, but it is up to the House to provide a clear framework and workable guidelines that enable those at the sharp end and in the courts to make the right decisions. Those decisions should be less open to challenge, more likely to speed the adoption process and make the welfare of the child paramount, without the complication added by some of the macho PC nonsense displayed by the Liberal spokesman earlier this evening.
As we come to the end of our deliberations, we need to make the difficult job of adoption easier for the dedicated band of adopters in this country who give vulnerable children improved life chances, as the Secretary of State put it. I look forward to the constructive progress of the Bill. We shall support its Second Reading.
We have had a significant and wide-ranging debate and I am grateful to Members for their genuine interest and for their informed contributions to it. In the relatively limited time left, I hope to respond to some of the issues raised, but I start by congratulating Mr. Bacon on his maiden speech. I am afraid that I missed his keeping his balls in the air, but I am sure that it was something worth seeing.
For many children, adoption can help to provide a stable and secure family life. The child and his needs must come first. A child's welfare is our first and last consideration. However, to help meet those needs and to provide children with new families, we must encourage suitable people to come forward as prospective adopters and to provide them with help where necessary.
There have been great changes in society and in our expectations. There are more people wanting to adopt than there are young children available for adoption. Very few babies are given up for adoption, but demand from couples to adopt babies has grown. Many couples therefore turn to other countries, and last year there were 351 applications for overseas adoption. Legislation has failed to keep pace with these changes, but the Bill represents the most radical overhaul of adoption law for 25 years. It is long overdue.
The Bill has five key aims: to make the child's needs paramount in all the decisions made by the adoption agency and the court; to provide for support for adoptive families; to help to make the process of adopting fairer; to help cut delays in adoptions; and to strengthen the rigorous safeguards to protect the child including those for intercountry adoptions.
The hon. Members for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) and for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) questioned the provision for six months in our proposals for intercountry adoptions. I should explain that the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 placed restrictions on those habitually resident in the UK bringing a child into the UK for the purposes of adoption, but it does not catch Britons who adopt the child abroad and then bring them back into this country. The Bill extends the restriction to Britons who adopt abroad and bring the child back. If they do not follow approved procedures, they will be committing an offence.
The restriction applies to habitual residents in the UK who adopt abroad within a period of six months. We chose six months because we thought that it would be long enough to deter those who want just to nip abroad and adopt quickly—we felt that three months was too short—but we did not want to catch people who worked abroad for a considerable period, adopted properly and ended up committing an offence when they returned to the UK.
There has been much debate about clause 1, which makes the child's welfare in childhood and later the paramount consideration for a court or adoption agency in making any decision relating to the adoption of that child. My hon. Friend Ms Coffey, who drew on her considerable experience in this subject, Mr. Brazier and my hon. Friend Mr. Shaw raised the issue of delay. The welfare checklist in clause 1(5) states clearly:
"In placing the child for adoption, the adoption agency must give due consideration to the child's religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background."
However, clause 1(3), vitally, will oblige courts and adoption agencies to bear it in mind at all times
" that, in general, any delay in coming to a decision is likely to prejudice the child's welfare."
That point applies across the Bill, so clause 1(3) refers to clause 1(5). Taken together, the provisions give effect to the policy set out in the national adoption standards that the best adoptive placement is one that reflects the child's birth heritage provided that the placement can be found without unnecessary or harmful delay. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear, children should not be left waiting indefinitely for a supposedly perfect family.
The hon. Members for Woodspring, for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) and my hon. Friend Kevin Brennan mentioned the importance of birth parents. The paramountcy principle applies to all decisions involving the adoption of a child, including whether to dispense with the birth parents' consent to adoption. However, we believe that the welfare check list and the need for the courts to consider those decisions provide the necessary safeguards.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport also raised the important issue of thresholds. The Bill provides that a child cannot be compulsorily placed for adoption without the Children Act 1989 threshold test of significant harm being met. That test safeguards the rights of birth families and means that there is a consistent threshold for compulsory state intervention in family life across adoption legislation and the 1989 Act. That delivers on our promise to bring those measures into line, and it is right that the focus of all decisions to do with adoption, including whether to dispense with the birth parents' consent, should be based on the child's welfare.
My hon. Friend Mr. Dawson and Mr. Llwyd emphasised the importance of the child's voice in adoption decisions. Clause 1(4)(a) explicitly demands that the court takes into consideration the ascertainable wishes of the child when making decisions.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Humble and Dr. Cable rightly emphasised the need to recruit sufficient adoptive parents. My hon. Friend Ms Munn, building on her experience, spoke passionately about the need to support families. The Bill places for the first time a clear duty on local social services authorities to make arrangements to provide adoption support services, including financial support. That is important. It will encourage people to come forward in the knowledge that help will be available.
Looked-after children who are adopted and their new families will have a key worker who will act as a gateway to adoption support services if they want to access them. Support will also be available for the new special guardianship proposals. That may include grandparents, who were mentioned by Mr. McLoughlin. Grandparents specifically welcomed those proposals.
The hon. Member for Woodspring questioned the speed with which more details about adoption allowances and support would be made available. We will publish a draft framework for consultation next spring. Early work has begun, in discussion with stakeholders, on the details of adoption and financial support.
I agree that recruitment is important, which is why the Government are supporting specific local recruitment activity, developing a resource pack to support the work of local authorities in recruitment and helping to raise awareness of the children who are waiting for adoption and the adopters needed. In addition, we continue to support national adoption week.
Several hon. Members referred to resources. Overall, social services in England spent nearly £51 million on adoption and adoption allowances in 1999–2000. The Government have pledged another £66.5 million for adoption services over three years. That means a 25 per cent. increase in this financial year in the resources available for adoption and adoption support.
We have of course made available more money for training, and I am sure that good authorities will be using that to support their adoption work. Tim Loughton has a bit of a cheek raising the issue of social services funding, given that he stood for election on a platform that did not promise even to match our pledges.
My hon. Friend Liz Blackman rightly emphasised the need to improve best practice and the management of adoption services. The adoption and permanence taskforce has already worked with 12 local authorities. Today we announced the involvement of another 12 authorities. The taskforce has helped local authorities to improve performance and to develop a range of good practice materials. The chairman of the taskforce is the chief inspector, so there is an important link between the work of the taskforce and our emphasis on raising standards. We also have performance indicators, inspections by the social services inspectorate and in-year monitoring. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear in a highly acclaimed speech to the social services conference two weeks ago, we will also be taking action to improve performance where necessary.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley rightly emphasised the fact that adoptive parents need to feel confident in applying. Through the independent review process, which we will be consulting on further, we will ensure that adoptive parents can have confidence in the system. Several hon. Members mentioned access to information. The fact that the hon. Members for Woodspring and for Oxford, West and Abingdon and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West took different views on that issue shows that we will return to it in the Special Standing Committee.
My hon. Friend Margaret Moran made an important point about safeguards. The Bill reinforces safeguards to protect children from harm or exploitation. I know that she has already had useful meetings about child contact with the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, my hon. Friend Ms Winterton, and we will certainly consider how best to minimise the risks that she outlined.
We are determined to deliver, between March 2001 and March 2005, a 40 per cent. increase in the number of children adopted from council care. Our adoption taskforce, the adoption register and the national adoption standards launched this summer will help to achieve that, and some of the Bill's key provisions will help to sustain that commitment. Earlier this month, the latest published figures showed that this challenging goal is achievable, and one that we are right to strive for and possibly to exceed.
Last year, 12 per cent. more children were adopted from council care in England, which means that nearly every day an extra child was given the chance of a stable, loving family. The Bill represents a much needed, fundamental reform of adoption law. It is vital that we get it right. That is why we have taken a consultative approach, building on the 1996 draft Bill. That is why the Bill was referred to a Select Committee after its previous Second Reading, and why we are now proposing, by remitting the Bill to a Special Standing Committee, to give the House an additional opportunity for intensive scrutiny and to allow the key players in adoption to comment on the Bill.
We are determined to modernise and reform adoption, and to make it a faster, fairer experience for children and families. We have made good progress, and the Bill marks a further significant step towards our goal. The Bill is of lasting significance. The House has not debated and passed a major Bill on adoption for almost a generation. However, we must ensure that new laws work, and that they provide the safeguards and flexibility necessary to meet expectations and needs that have changed a great deal since the 1970s. Thousands of children and adoptive parents will have their lives changed for ever by the measures detailed in this necessarily complex Bill. For their sakes, we must get it right.
Successful adoption provides the chance of a new start and a new, loving family life for a child. The Bill will help us to provide that chance for thousands more children, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.