My Lords, this is perhaps the most long-awaited Bill to come before your Lordships' House. It is hard to recall one where so many hopes and expectations ride on the deliberations which take place here.
Before turning to the detail of the Bill, I want to talk about the task which I believe is before us. As the Minister said, this issue is one of the most difficult and complex areas on which legislators have to spend time. It represents perhaps the most acute intrusion of the state into family life. Therefore, it is immensely controversial. It represents the state seeking to replicate the best of something which is complex and which throughout history has never been perfect—family life.
The subject carries with it a great deal of passion and conviction. We are all experts on families. We all have families. That leads us to hold very strongly held views and principles about family life. But we are asked to make judgments which will affect profoundly the lives of families which are very different from ours.
As legislators on the subject we shall be advised and lobbied by a vast array of organisations. We will be persuaded after we have been presented with strongly held arguments. They will conflict because they represent the different experiences of the adoption process that people have had. All those views are valid because they stem from an individual's experience, but it does not make for an easy task to arrive at a judgment about what is presented before us.
In the past, with regard to other Bills I have often teased the Minister about his love of the word "balance". I am sure that that word will appear many times in our discussions over the coming weeks. I rather suspect that we will not achieve balance between conflicting views; we shall simply have to arrive at a judgment about which of those views should be paramount.
The Bill has been effectively subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. It has had two dry runs. It is all the better for that. In addition, during its passage through another place it was subject to a Special Standing Committee. That, too, had a beneficial effect on its wording. However, in another place, consideration of the Bill was regrettably inadequate. It was curtailed through strict programming. As we begin what I hope will be a thorough and thoughtful consideration of this wide-ranging Bill, it is worth noting that in another place the Government listened to reasoned arguments and changed their mind significantly on major issues. I hope that on all sides during our debate there will be a willingness to examine issues in depth and in a similar spirit of openness.
At the outset of our deliberations it is worth spending time clarifying what adoption and fostering is in our society today, and why the Bill is necessary. At the time of the 1976 Act—and I am very pleased to see that my noble friend Lord Hooson, one of the architects of that Bill, is in his place today—the majority of adoptions were of babies, 20 per cent of whom were born to unmarried mothers.
Happily, there have been changes in attitude since then—some reflected in the Family Law Reform Act 1987, passed by the last Conservative government—which have lessened the stigma suffered by one-parent families. During the 1970s the number of adoptions of infants dropped. At the same time, adoption of children in care increased. In the 1990s 40 per cent of adoptions were of children who had been in care. During the past 30 years the nature of adoption has changed. Rather than having children available for adoption by people unable to have children, the emphasis has changed to finding a permanent home for children who have families.
I do not want to go through at great length the statistics given by the Minister regarding the current adoption situation. I merely flag up two aspects. Many of the children up for adoption have had fractured and disrupted lives before going into care; 67 per cent have an identifiable mental health problem; and 30 per cent have statements of special educational need. Seventy per cent of children who leave care have no educational qualifications; between 14 per cent and 25 per cent of young women who leave care have a child; and, compared to the general population, those who have been looked after are 60 per cent more likely to become homeless. Thirty nine per cent of male prisoners under 21 have been looked after.
The Performance and Innovation Unit report of July 2000 identified three problems with the adoption system. First, decisions about how to provide a stable, secure and permanent placement are not made early enough or taken swiftly enough. Secondly, where plans for permanent placement are made they are not delivered quickly enough. Children wait on average nearly three years between becoming looked after and being adopted. Thirdly, services do not provide the support families need through the process of adoption and beyond into permanence.
Throughout my preparation for the Bill I have made it my business to talk to many people with personal experience of adoption and fostering. One woman's comment really tells the story behind the statistics. She said:
"I fostered a girl a few years ago. I work with children and I thought it was something I could do. The whole thing was horrendous. She was 11 when she came to me and she had been messed around so much that by the time she lived with me it was far too late. I don't know where she is now, probably burning down buildings. She needed much more help than I could give, and there was nobody to turn to for help and advice".
Sadly, that woman's experience is not exceptional. The Bill concerns children whose early experience of life has shattered their trust in adults. They have never known normal family life.
Many of the Bill's proposals are good and deserve widespread support throughout the House. The decision to make the welfare of a child throughout his or her life paramount is a welcome development on previous legislation. As a guiding principle, it is not without difficulty because of subjectivity: none the less it sets a basis on which decisions can be ranked. Special guardianship will create a new form of permanent care without severing relationships with birth parents and will in all probability be a good solution for some children.
The creation of a legally underpinned adoption register for England and Wales may speed up the process of matching children and families. The recognition that a great deal of delay in the adoption process is caused by court proceedings must have a beneficial effect. However, the will to speed up court proceedings will become a reality only if courts have the resources to do so. The provisions for step-parents are good in that they reflect the reality of life for many people.
There has been a general welcome for the proposal to allow prospective adopters who have been rejected to lodge an appeal. However, there are those who believe that the facility to appeal should apply right through the adoption process—or certainly to other stages. One of the many issues we shall need to address is the extent to which appeals can be played off against the will to speed up the adoption process.
There are several areas in which the Bill as drafted is deficient. Although the welfare principle is at the heart of the Bill and the deficiencies of the current court system have been noted, there is no provision in the Bill for advocacy for a child throughout the adoption process.
The proposals to improve inter-country adoption are wide ranging. For many people, the issue of inter-country adoption is difficult. There are those who question whether it is right to remove children from their birth country and whether the processes for doing so are sufficiently rigorous. Personally, I have come to the view that whatever happens, inter-country adoption will continue to take place. If so, it is better for children, adoptive families and birth families that it happens in a way that is transparent and open to scrutiny. However—as we will discover when we discuss the subject in detail—the mechanisms in this country for managing inter-country adoption are seriously inadequate. The lack of a linking agency, in particular, causes problems.
Throughout the Bill, penalties and fines are mentioned. I ask the Minister whether those penalties and fines are sufficiently high to be a deterrent. Having read the Bill, my feeling is that in some cases they will not disbar anyone who is desperate to secure a child. I raise that as a key issue.
There are three main areas that should be the focus of our deliberations, although I fear there will be great pressure to do otherwise. Private fostering and adoption remains an enormous loophole—perhaps because little is known about private fostering as much of it happens away from the attention of local authorities. Despite work on the subject, such as that of Sir William Utting's report, People Like Us, little is still known about the subject. The Bill is an opportunity for us to ensure that things such as the death of Victoria Climbie do not happen again. We should give a great deal of consideration to the regulation of private social workers and private fostering.
As I noted earlier, this is the first major adoption Bill for 25 to 30 years. That seems to be the timetable for adoption legislation. An added impetus is therefore given to one particular matter: retrospection. The Children Act 1975 provided for the first time the facility for birth parents to find out what had happened to children they had given away for adoption. It was then accepted that the facility to make contact could be beneficial both for birth parents and the child without compromising the integrity of an adoption. However, the Act was not retrospective and applied only to post-1976 adoptions. It has left an anomaly whereby birth parents—anyone who listened to Radio 4 yesterday afternoon will realise the importance of birth fathers in this matter—are barred from making inquiries via an intermediary body about what has happened to a child.
I admit that my initial feeling was that we should not go down that route, but having listened to the arguments put forward, especially by organisations such as the National Organisation for the Counselling of Adoptees and Parents, I have changed my mind. Given that anyone involved in such an inquiry will be at least 28 years old, I cannot see any good reason why the state should bar adults from making contact with people with whom they have a blood relationship. I am certain that that process will be difficult and contacts that result will not all necessarily be good, but we should extend to those people the right to make those inquiries.
In the small time left to me, I should like to consider one other major issue. Dealing with the number of adoption organisations can be mind-boggling. There are hundreds of them, reflecting as they do people's different experiences of the adoption process. But one thing above all else unites all of those organisations. That is the need for post-adoption support—not for an assessment, but for support. That is the single most important thing that we can do in the Bill to help the adoption process to work. When a placement breaks down, three lives are destroyed—those of the parents and that of the child—and it becomes ever more difficult to find a placement for a child that will work.
I understand that the Treasury want the Bill to be cost-neutral, but I ask the Government to be joined up in their thinking and to consider the cost to the Treasury, apart from anyone else, of custodial sentences, of drug and alcohol services and of homelessness services for people for whom adoption does not work. Many people go into adoption for the best of reasons and with generous hearts. One recurring phrase in my talks with people about the subject during the past few weeks is that of a child suddenly exploding. Children need to be able to find someone to talk to, to help them through that process. The press will probably portray the matter in other ways, but I believe that to be the single most important issue in the Bill.
As I said at the beginning, we will not get things right for everyone concerned with the subject—we cannot possibly do that. All we can do is to put together a legislative framework in which families, children and practitioners can together arrive at the best decision for an individual child and an individual family. Our task is to get that right.