My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
Every child should have the opportunity to grow up in a stable and secure loving family. When children cannot live with their birth parents, we have a responsibility to ensure that they can enjoy the kind of loving family life which most of us take for granted.
We know that outcomes have not been good for children in care. Compared with children who have not been looked after by local authorities, looked-after children have poor chances of leading successful, settled lives when they leave the care system. Adoption can provide a new start in life for many children, particularly for children who have been looked after.
But, all too often, adoption has been seen as a last resort for these children when it should have been considered as a first resort. Too often the adoption system has let children down. Council performance is too varied. In some councils, 10 per cent of looked-after children are adopted; in others, the figure is less than 2 per cent. Overall, the system, including the courts, can be slow, cumbersome and unfair. The average time taken to adopt a looked-after child is two years and nine months—an eternity in a child's eyes. We have to change that.
That is why in December 2000 the Government published a White Paper programme for transforming the adoption service. It included: better support for adopters; an end to blanket bans; clear national standards; improved funding; a national register; a task force to help to deliver improvements; a relentless effort to drive up local authority performance; and support for adoptive families, who do such a marvellous and worthwhile job.
Progress is being made. For a second year, there has been a significant increase in the number of children adopted from care, with 400 extra children a year adopted. Since the beginning of the Quality Protects initiative in April 1999, we have seen a 40 per cent increase in the number of adoptions from care. That is very encouraging. But it must continue so that by 2005 an extra 1,100 children can benefit from a stable and secure family life each year.
We have put in place challenging national adoption standards to improve all aspects of the service. Local authorities will have to implement those in full by April next year. It is encouraging that the delays in the system are being reduced. It is also encouraging that those in question are now spending less time as looked-after children before being adopted. The time has fallen from more than three years in 1998 to two years and nine months in 2001. But we need to continue that progress.
The Adoption and Permanence Taskforce is also making a real difference in the field by helping councils to achieve a step change in the performance of their adoption services and by identifying and spreading best practice. The task force's first annual report shows genuine partnership between council staff and the task force members. This year they are working with 13 more local authorities.
Other positive work is under way. That work includes: supporting local recruitment activities to find suitable families for looked-after children; making fully operational in April this year an adoption register for England and Wales; recruitment campaigns to attract more social workers into employment; and funding—another £66.5 million for adoption services over three years. Therefore, a great deal of positive work is under way but there is still much room for improvement.
To underpin all that, there needs to be a wholesale modernisation of adoption legislation. The current Adoption Act 1976 is outdated and based on legislation that dates back to 1958, and it is not consistent with the Children Act 1989.
The Bill will completely overhaul the legal framework for adoption in England and Wales. It is the result of extensive consultation. When the Bill was introduced in the other place, it was sent to a Special Standing Committee for consideration and to hear the views of all those with an interest. We have listened to the points raised and many changes have been made. I believe that the Bill is better as a result.
Perhaps I may now highlight the key provisions in the Bill. We believe that first and foremost adoption is, and must be, a service for children. That is the simple founding principle on which the whole Bill is based. 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 into line with the Children Act.
It is also in the interest of the child that we bear down on harmful delays to adoption. The Bill makes clear that while in placing a child for adoption all agencies must give due consideration to the child's background, there is an obligation on the courts and all the agencies involved to bear in mind at all times that delay is likely to prejudice the child's welfare. Of course, the best adoptive placement for a child should reflect his/her religious persuasion, racial origin, cultural and linguistic heritage, but only if that 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.
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 information on the register is used to suggest families for a child in cases where a local match cannot be found within an agreed period of time or where the child needs to move away from the area. The Bill places the register on a statutory footing. However, the register is only part of our efforts to bear down on harmful delay.
The Bill includes further measures to cut down delays within the legal process by requiring courts to draw up timetables for adoption cases and issue any directions necessary to ensure that those timetables are met. In addition, the new system of placement for adoption and placement orders aims to provide a better, fairer legal process for adoption than the current widely-criticised system of freeing orders.
If we want to encourage more adoptions from care, we must go further than simply improving the legal process. We need to improve the support we give to adoptive families. Too often, adoption support services across the country are patchy and inconsistent. But that support is all the more necessary when we consider that many of those children in care waiting for an adoptive family have special needs or challenging backgrounds.
I have already expressed my admiration for the families who adopt and who overwhelmingly do a superb job. It is not an easy job because many of the children are not easy. They and their adoptive parents deserve more support. The Bill tackles the postcode lottery in adoption support services. To ensure high-quality services everywhere, the Bill requires adoption support agencies to register with the National Care Standards Commission in England and the National Assembly in Wales.
The Bill also introduces a new duty on local authorities across the country to make arrangements for the provision of adoption support services, and that will include financial support. 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 available for prospective adopters who feel that they are being turned down unfairly. We shall consult a wide range of adoption stakeholders in developing the independent review mechanism and the regulations to underpin it.
The Government want to see more children adopted from care. Noble Lords will be aware that as a result of a free vote in the other place, the Bill widens the prospective pool of those entitled to adopt jointly to include unmarried couples. As currently drafted, it would be for adoption agencies and the courts to decide whether an individual couple is suitable to adopt. In order to be able to be approved as adoptive parents, a couple would need to prove that they have a stable and lasting relationship and that they can provide a loving family environment for the child. We have said that we shall bring forward during the Lords' stages of the Bill the consequential amendments needed to complete the change endorsed by the other place. I am aware of the wide range of strongly-held views on this issue. That is why there was a free vote in the other place, and why there will be a free vote in this House too.
As well as promoting more adoption, we need to ensure that we are protecting vulnerable children. The Bill also enhances the current controls on advertising, payments and intercountry adoption. Your Lordships will be aware of the high-profile case last year of twins adopted overseas following an advertisement on the Internet. Adoption must be a service for children not for profit. It should happen in the interests of the child not as a commercial transaction. The Bill aims to put in place tighter safeguards to help ensure that that is, indeed, what happens. The Bill proposes a number of major changes to the laws on intercountry adoption, building on the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999.
We have already implemented provisions in that Act to make it an offence for a British resident to bring a child from another country into the UK for the purposes of adoption, unless they have satisfied certain requirements; for example that they are already approved adopters. It is also now illegal for anyone other than a local authority or voluntary adoption agency to assess and approve prospective adopters. Privately commissioned home studies can no longer be accepted as part of the adoption process.
The Bill now goes further in strengthening the law on intercountry adoptions. First, it introduces 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 puts 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 in contravention of those provisions will be raised from three months' imprisonment at present to 12 months. Those who break the law could face the maximum gaol sentence, an unlimited fine or both. Thirdly, it includes a new provision that will allow the Government to ensure that in future, adoption orders made overseas will be recognised in the UK only when the systems in that 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 no profit has been made for the purposes.
The Bill takes two further steps better to protect the welfare of children from exploitation. It introduces tougher penalties for those who seek to circumvent the safeguards for arranging adoptions and payments for domestic and intercountry adoptions. It doubles the current penalties to up to six months in prison, a £10,000 fine, or both.
The Bill also introduces new safeguards for advertising children for adoption. Advertising can be an effective method of encouraging more people to consider coming forward to adopt, but that activity must be properly regulated in the interests of the children concerned. The Bill therefore amends and extends existing restrictions on advertising in the Adoption Act 1976. Anyone, unless an approved adoption agency, who publishes or distributes an advertisement for the adoption of a child in the UK, 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. Both offline and online advertising will be subject to those new restrictions. Advertising via the Internet will need to be compatible with the e-commerce directive. We are currently working on the regulations needed to implement the directive. When those are finalised we shall ensure that the Bill reflects them appropriately, and shall bring forward amendments to that effect, if necessary.
Adoption does not simply affect people when they are children. Adoption is for life, and we need to consider its lifelong effects. That is why the Bill includes provision to ensure consistent access to information by people who have been adopted about their background and, indeed, about the circumstances of their adoption. Where it identifies individuals, that information can be highly sensitive. That is why the Bill's provisions aim to deliver a system which tries to balance the welfare and the best interests of all those affected.
The Bill therefore establishes a single point of access to all information which could identify adopted persons and others involved in their adoption. That sensitive information will be made available only through adoption agencies. Where an agency is deciding whether to disclose identifying information we believe it is right that it should seek to consider the views and interests of those affected. But the Bill retains the right of adopted adults to have access to their original birth certificate.
Decisions made by adoption agencies about the disclosure of sensitive identifying information from the records they keep about a person's adoption will also be subject to independent review. It is right that, where adoption agencies have discretion, the people affected—both the adopted child and the birth family—have a right of review.
The Bill represents and sets out a comprehensive modernisation and reform of adoption law. It also accepts that adoption of course will not be suitable for all children. Older children may not want legally to separate from their birth parents, even though they may not want to live with them. Adoption may not be the best option for other children who are being cared for on a permanent basis by members of their wider family. But at present children have only one choice of legal permanence outside the care system—mainstream adoption. The alternatives are to stay in care, either with the local authority or with a foster family. The Bill introduces into the Children Act a further choice—new special guardianship orders. They give permanence to the child and day-to-day responsibility for his or her care to the special guardian without severing all legal ties with the child's birth family. Furthermore, the Bill provides that proper support services are available for those placements.
As a result of the debates and discussions over the past months, the Bill makes some important additional improvements to the Children Act. For example, it ensures that the courts will give proper consideration to the harmful effects of domestic violence when making decisions concerning a child. Furthermore, the Bill provides for an improved system of independent review of the progress of children looked after by local authorities, which is intended to ensure that local authority care plans are properly implemented and that the children's human rights are protected.
This is a complex and substantial Bill on a matter of great interest and importance. It gives the House an opportunity to make changes that will have a lifelong impact on thousands of children in the future: children in care who need and deserve a new family. The Bill can help give them a second chance to grow up in a permanent, secure and loving family. They deserve nothing less. I commend the Bill to the House.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Hunt of Kings Heath.)