My Lords, like other noble Lords, and the adoption agencies, I very much welcome this Bill. At the moment, there are something like 60,000 children in care of whom only about 5,000 were adopted last year. Anything that can responsibly be done to increase the number of children in care who are adopted is to be fully supported.
The Churches have long experience in adoption matters. There was a time when virtually every diocese engaged in this work. Eight dioceses still do so, and, collectively, this group, the Diocesan Agencies Group, represents about one quarter of the voluntary agency provision in this country.
The purpose of the Bill is so important, and its key principle—that the welfare of the child be the paramount consideration for courts and adoption agencies—is so crucial, that I very much hope the debate about the unmarried couples' eligibility to adopt will not detract from this. As we know, a child can now be adopted by a single person, whatever his or her sexual orientation, if this is judged to be in the best interests of the child. I agree with the Children's Society that it seems somewhat arbitrary to deny to couples what is allowed to a single person just because the couple is not married. It seems strange that the child should be denied the opportunity of two legal parents when it might be in his best interests and would normally be in his best interests if that relationship were judged to be a stable and enduring one.
As we know, most of the children now waiting in local authority care, usually in foster care, are over the age of one and many of them are over the age of five. They have nearly always had a number of difficulties in their early lives, including health problems or learning difficulties. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering brings out a magazine Be My Parent, which many of us have seen. It shows pictures of children waiting for adoption. Unfortunately, recent analysis shows that half the boys featured aged between five and 10 receive no inquiries at all from prospective adopters. As it is likely that the number of people cohabiting will continue to rise, it seems a pity to discourage such couples from adopting, if they are otherwise suitable. For it seems clear that at least some unmarried couples do not come forward because at the moment only one of them has the legal right to adopt.
The Church of England is fully committed to the institution of marriage. No one is more eloquent than the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in her defence of marriage. However, I have to ask both sincerely and seriously whether we really support the institution of marriage by making adoption more difficult for unmarried couples who are otherwise judged suitable to adopt. It must surely be in the best interests of those children in care at present to be brought up in a stable, loving relationship, even if the adoptive parents are not married, than continue in care. In the case of a particular child, that could be the only other option available. Indeed, in the judgment of the court, it could be the best option available to the child at that particular time.
Of course, both the adoption agency and, finally, the courts are legally required to make a thorough assessment of the stability and, therefore, the suitability of all would-be adopters. It is, quite rightly, a searching and thorough process that would-be adopters have to go through. Clause 139(4) talks about "an enduring family relationship". No doubt that could be defined in many different ways. But surely a court will make a sober and serious judgment about any family relationship as to whether or not it really is "enduring".
As far as concerns same sex couples, again it must be emphasised that a single lesbian or gay person is already in a position to adopt, if it is judged to be in the best interests of a particular child that he or she should become an adoptive parent. This has been tested in the courts. The question is simply whether a couple should be denied this opportunity if it is judged to be in the best interests of the child to be adopted by a couple. The results of research are hardly surprising. I quote the conclusions of some research:
"Existing findings seem to suggest that aspects of family structure such as genetic relatedness, number of parents and the mother's sexual orientation may matter less for children's psychological adjustment than warm and supportive relationships with parents in a positive family environment".
Nor is it clear that children brought up in such relationships will be more confused about their sexual identity than children adopted by married or single people. The formation of sexual identity is a mysterious process in which at the moment there are no assured findings—but what matters above all, from the point of view of psychological health and long-term maturity of a child is that warm supportive environment.
So while I do not think that we should get this issue out of proportion, if there is a desperate need—as there is—to place more children with suitable parents and the interests of the child are always to be paramount, surely it would be wrong to make it impossible in principle for suitable couples, whether heterosexual, gay or lesbian, to adopt.
What particularly concerns the adoption agencies is not this issue but the serious under-funding of adoption support services, as the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, stated so powerfully. Most of the children placed by adoption agencies have particular complex social, emotional or learning difficulties; others bring with them a legacy of despair as a result of abuse and other problems. In order to continue to provide a satisfactory adoption support service for adopters and children placed for adoption, resources need to be expended on agencies carrying out this work, including voluntary adoption agencies.
There is recognition in the Bill that the issue of on-going support for families taking on older children from the care system does need to be appropriately funded and there is a recognition that these children's needs should be assessed; but there is silence as to what should happen next and who should fund it. The Bill as drafted enables the adopted child and his or her adopters to have a full assessment of their support needs—which could be very significant for children who have suffered early neglect and abuse and who may have moved a number of times while in care. However, no duty is imposed on the local authority to provide those services. If as a society we are serious about helping these children to develop into mature adults who will live useful lives, we cannot avoid the fact that some, perhaps many, of them are likely to need serious post-adoption support.
The purpose behind the Bill—to increase the number of children in care who are adopted—is highly worth while. There seems to be agreement that most of the detailed provision in the Bill is to be supported. If we are to make that laudable purpose a reality, we must encourage, not discourage, a wide range of people who are able to offer long-term loving care to come forward as adoptive parents. They must be reassured that, in adopting children who will sometimes still suffer the effects of early neglect or abuse, they will receive all the post-adoptive support that they need.
My Lords, like other speakers, I believe that it has been a tragedy for far too long, and for far too many children, that there has been no reform of the adoption laws for over 25 years—despite growing concern about the performance of the service. Credit must be given to the Prime Minister and to the Government for acting so promptly in response to the Waterhouse report. The crux of the Bill is making the child's interest paramount, bringing it in line with the Children Act 1989. That should be the test that guides all our deliberations.
In spite of there being some increase in the number of adopters, of the 58,000 children in care—62 per cent of whom are in care for reasons of neglect and/or abuse—only 3,000 were placed for adoption. Yet children who grow up in care are four times more likely to be unemployed and 60 times more likely to be homeless, and they make up one in four of the prison population—a situation which I am sure everyone wishes to change.
My right honourable friend Alan Milburn was right to emphasise that that was not a failure of the children in care but of the system of care. However, a key factor in reducing the number of children in care must be to cut unnecessary delay. The measures taken by the Government to establish a statutory national adoption register to supplement local authority matches has to be welcomed. Along with the provision for the courts to draw up timetables to which it must adhere, the measures should go some way to reducing the frustration of would be adopters and the delay in placements.
Although I agree that it is right that all agencies must give due consideration to the child's background and to religious, race and cultural issues, it is not right that they should be allowed to cause delay such as to prejudice the child's welfare. Children should not have to wait for an average of nearly three years before being adopted—during which time they often suffer further psychological damage from multiple foster placements and moves.
Unlike many other speakers in this debate, my awareness of and my interest in adoption are recent and I do not profess to have their experience or knowledge. My interest, however, was stimulated by being asked to chair a symposium organised by the Adoption Forum. I was staggered to learn at that symposium that, typically, a child moves about 10 times while in care, and that 30 to 40 moves are not uncommon. One case was cited of a child who had 235 moves. This is not only costly—ranging from £2,500 for a simple move to £20,000 for a more complex move—but, more importantly, it must be detrimental to the child.
Of equal concern must be the number of children who disappear in the system because there are no centrally held records. The Government are anxious to avoid children "drifting" in care; but it can be avoided only if there is a national and effective tracking system, so that records can travel easily between local authorities. I raise these points to illustrate the problems. I hope that the Minister can reassure me that both of these problems will be resolved within the Bill's provisions.
It had been expected that the introduction of placement orders would help in keeping track of children for whom the plan is adoption. But under the 1976 Act, a child can be freed for adoption with parental agreement, even if there is no certainty of a placement. As a consequence, if that placement breaks down before an adoption is made, a child may be left without a family.
I make this point to the Minister. Surely a placement order should mean just that—it should be a means of placing a child with a specific family via the courts. The present position can also create a misunderstanding on the part of birth parents who believe that they are agreeing to specific prospective parents and then find that that is not the case.
On the question of widening the pool of adopters, I accept what the Minister tells us; namely, that matters are improving. I accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Young, says about the bureaucracy that surrounds adoption. But I still believe that the pool of potential parents has to be extended. That is why I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young—although I am pleased to see in her place today. The provision for unmarried and same sex couples to adopt does just that.
Under the present law, no one is legally excluded from the right to adopt. Recent polling has shown that 41 per cent of unmarried couples would adopt, but only 6 per cent do so. That is mainly, as the right reverend Prelate said, because only one of them can become the legal guardian, while the other partner is downgraded to second-class status. It cannot be in the interests of a child for only one parent to be able to make decisions about his or her welfare.
I reiterate: it seems completely illogical that there is no requirement for foster carers to be married. Both partners are responsible for the child. However, should they wish to adopt, only one foster parent can in law become the adoptive parent. Any such change can have only a destabilising effect on the child. Surely, it makes sense, where two people in a secure relationship have been assessed by the agency and the court as suitable to care jointly for a child, for that child to have the legal commitment of two parents.
Too many adoptions fail because families feel unable to cope and the support that they receive is limited. Post-adoption support is crucial. While local authorities have a duty to assess need for post-adoption support, there is no duty to provide such support, even if a need is established. The majority of children adopted from care are very needy children with deeply difficult histories.
It has been said that there is no precedent for being able to do this, but it is contrary to the case of a child with an educational statement of needs who has to be provided with help. There should be a clear duty to provide such services. To do so would reassure potential adopters, more of whom would be likely to come forward.
Local authorities have a very difficult job to do, involving issues that are often complex and emotionally fraught. Standards vary between local authorities. The new national standards are long overdue. Social workers are the gateway to adoption, and their attitudes are crucial. It is therefore essential that they have the best possible information and skills with which to carry out their complex and sensitive job. I believe that the Government are making available £47.5 million for social care training. Will the Minister indicate how much of that money will be used specifically for the training of adoption workers? Equally, will the £66 million promised over the next two to three years be sufficient, given the requirements for extra intervention, support, assessment, inspection and registration?
Recent research suggests that single applicants and families on low incomes are under-represented among approved adopters. The adoption allowance system—which, again, varies from authority to authority—may affect whether they would consider adoption. Will the Minister clarify how the review of the system is to be conducted and what implications there might be for tax and benefits?
There are many other issues that will be raised as the Bill proceeds—many of which have been referred to by other speakers—that I do not have time to deal with today. However, I wish to mention briefly the issue of contact between children and abusive parents. If the theme of the Bill is that the interests of the child are paramount, we cannot ignore the vital issue of child protection. Of course it is right that the child maintains contact with both parents following separation wherever possible. However, the existing legal system fails to protect children from abusers who are known to them. There is something wrong when 15 children have been killed as a result of contact arrangements. A survey of 130 parents in 1999 found that a staggering 76 per cent of their children were abused during contact visits ordered by the courts.
The amendments introduced by the Government to extend the definition of harm are welcome, but they do not protect the child from direct abuse, neglect or abduction. As a survey by Women's Aid shows, regrettably, the good practice guidelines for judges, which are not mandatory, have not reduced the problem. I am sure that there will be much more detailed discussion on that and other subjects as the Bill goes through the process of scrutiny.
Despite the qualifications that I have mentioned, the Bill makes many important and worthwhile changes to improve the system for those families and the adopted child. I am sure that the Bill will be improved even further as we take it through the House. It is long overdue and very welcome and I hope that it will enjoy the support of the House.
My Lords, many important contributions have already been made to this important debate. I felt that it was important that my first speech following my maiden speech earlier this year should be on a subject that is dear to my heart and to my experiences as the chief executive of the homelessness organisation Centrepoint and as a director of the Alcohol Recovery Project, many of whose clients were children and young people who had been in care.
The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, referred to the role of the state in replicating the family through adoption and fostering legislation. I suggest that only a loving relationship created by close involvement with responsible adults can do that. The state creates the framework, through this Bill, in which such a relationship might thrive. That is a matter of fine judgment on the part of professionals and, in the case of the Bill, by this House.
However, the state does provide a family substitute through the care system. Although I welcome the increase in the number of young children adopted and fostered from care, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, there is still a great deal to be done. At Centrepoint, one young person in five has been in touch with the care system. You only have to experience the sight of children too old for their years, who have been in placement after placement, often ending up on the streets because of the failures of the system, to realise that the Bill is critical in providing the support that will prevent many of those young people ending up on our streets. A young person to whom I talked on many occasions when I was at Centrepoint pointed out that there is an alternative to adoption and fostering—and it is often the streets.
I agree with much of the thrust of what the Government propose. It is correct and consistent with their manifesto commitments and is long overdue. However, the proposals do not go far enough to ensure that the pool of potential parents is maximised. Specific duties should be placed on local authorities to follow through post-assessment care with the necessary support services.
The Bill would be improved if adoptive families had a clear entitlement to support services after adoption, subject to proper assessment as to their necessity. Under the current proposals, the adopted child and the adopters will be entitled only to a full assessment of their support needs. We know that this can be very significant for children who have suffered early neglect and abuse. Many have moved a number of times while in care. Such children can present very challenging and demanding behaviour to their new family and may also have a range of unmet health and educational needs. As the chief executive of BAAF Adoption and Fostering said to me, to allow those children a full assessment of the services that they require and then not to impose a duty on the local authority to provide those services is a little like taking your car for an MOT, receiving an estimate of the work that needs to be done and then deciding that you will not bother or cannot afford it. A clear duty to provide services is essential. That will not only support new adopted children and their families where help is needed, but also reassure potential adopters, most of whom will then feel more encouraged to come forward.
On expanding the pool, even if we were increasing rapidly the number of children taken into adoption and fostering from care, we would have a duty to increase the number of children who have the opportunity of a close and loving relationship with responsible adults. That is one of the main thrusts of the Bill. I would be very concerned if the debate disintegrated into a discussion on whether we can turn back the clock on our judgments about the validity of marriage or same-sex relationships. It is a fact, like gravity, that the clock cannot be turned back. We have to deal with situations as we see them now. The credibility of politics and of this House is enhanced if we deal with the facts as they are now rather than as we would wish them to be.
It is already a fact that unmarried couples and those in same-sex relationships can adopt. I have yet to hear a credible argument for removing that fact. However, as has already been said, only one partner in such a relationship can currently adopt legally. That needs to be put right. It can only be good for the child for both partners to have a legal responsibility and for the child to have the benefit of the considerations of both partners in this respect.
I find it difficult to accept an argument that same-sex relationships and lesbian and gay individuals and couples are somehow second-rate families or provide second-rate advice and support to children. I know from the children and families whom I have met professionally and personally that that is not the case. This House should show them the respect of understanding that in many cases such families can provide a very supportive environment, particularly for those young people who may find, through their own understanding of themselves, that they are lesbian or gay. This is not a matter of personal choice or of personal views or prejudices; this is a matter of fact and of how we can support those young people who are faced with very difficult choices in their lives and require the support of this House and of society at large rather than to be condemned, however lightly, to be considered as second-rate citizens, either individually or through the families who choose to support them.
I hope that this House will move forward and support the advice that has been given to me by many professional organisations, such as BAAF Adoption and Fostering, Barnardo's and NCH Action for Children. These organisations have many decades of experience with young children and have helped hundreds of thousands of children in this respect. I hope that the House will support the Government's proposals for unmarried couples and those of same-sex relationships to have the same rights.
On very few occasions does this House have the opportunity to make and support decisions that truly affect the lives of our young people. I respectfully say to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and others that it is a very difficult judgment, and I respect the views expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in making her case. However, we have to understand that these are very complex issues affecting the lives of individuals. We cannot legislate in a manner reflecting our personal prejudices. We have to deal with the facts and give all children the opportunity to live in a supportive environment which supports them as they are, not as we should like them to be.
My Lords, this Bill is welcome, as is the speech of the Minister as to its purpose and effect. However—to set this speech in context with those already made—may it be said shortly that I agree with the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, who established the true background against which we have to consider adoption, laying emphasis on the effect of delay, the current inadequacy of the process, and the need which other noble Lords have mentioned for post-adoption support as an entitlement.
I agree with part of the speech of my noble friend Lady Young, who identified the needs of those who do not have to return home from care and the need for change of the endemic attitude, as she put it, of social workers. However, as at present advised, I am not able to support an outright prohibition on homosexual couples as prospective adopters. Party policy is made neither from the speeches from the Privy Council Benches nor from those from these Back Benches. I agree that there must be a free vote to ascertain the true sense of this House and that it should be, whether in Committee or at any subsequent stage, on the Floor of the House.
To introduce what I have to say—which is in the interests only of clarification and implementation—I should like to advance some propositions. They are as follows. Under this Bill, the judiciary in the exercise of its inherent jurisdiction within the statutory framework remains the putative ultimate arbiter of the interests of each and every child. Decisions of the Appellate Committee of your Lordships' House which establish the two principles as applicable to Clauses 1 and 46 should not be affected by amendment to this Bill. On procedural aspects of implementation of Clause 1, a rigorous assessment should be introduced of general application which does not discriminate against homosexual couples as such as prospective adopters; and this Bill may not be amended to afford discrimination incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The rigorous assessment will be included with other proposed procedural provisions in implementation of Clause 1 to be tabled at Committee stage concerning the exercise of the powers of the court and the adoption agencies.
As to the two principles, they were established many years ago under statutory provisions substantially similar to those in Clauses 1 and 46 in two cases in which I appeared as leading counsel on behalf of the appellants before your Lordships' Appellate Committee. In the first of such cases, I acted for adoptive parents whose adoption order had been set aside by the Court of Appeal on the application of the mother that her consent should not have been dispensed with. The Appellate Committee quashed the decision of the Court of Appeal and reinstated the adoption order. The reasoning established the principles on which the court may dispense with parental consent to adoption under Clause 46(2)(c) of this Bill. That case was In Re W (An Infant) 1971 Appeal Cases and has ever since stood as commanding authority.
In the second case, I was acting for the Lewisham Borough Council. The Appellate Committee concluded that a Court of Appeal authority had been wrongly decided and established that local authority care does not terminate on the request of the parent to take over care of the child. That has an indirect putative effect on adoption. That case was decided in 1979 and has stood the test of time as well.
As to disposing with parental consent to adoption, it has been proposed to amend the Bill to introduce a new test which is not well conceived: that unless a balance of advantage to the child is tilted in favour of adoption against an alternative provision, then the consent of the natural parent to adoption may not be dispensed with. However, such mandatory provision is inflexible and could work against the interests of the child. What about the Borough of Lewisham case? Is it not in conflict with Clause 1(2) and 1(6) of the Bill? Would it not conflict with the reasoning in In Re W as introducing a derivative of the "blood tie" argument which was accepted by a majority of the Court of Appeal but unanimously rejected by the five noble and learned Lords sitting on your Lordships' Appellate Committee? It was a unanimous decision. Would it not ignore the opinion of the editors of current Halsbury's Laws in that In Re W tells a judge all he needs to know and that previous decisions are unhelpful?
As to the procedural amendment to be introduced as a probing amendment in implementation of Clause 1 as to the exercise of the powers of the court and the adoption agency, it is proposed that the child should be told, if of sufficient understanding, of prospective adoption and should meet the prospective adopters, and that at all stages of the process of adoption should be entitled to be heard and have independent qualified representation.
An entitlement to support services on adoption, referred to by more than one noble Lord, should be established. No adoption order should be made unless a legal commitment as an enforceable obligation has been approved by the court and the adoption agencies have been enjoined to provide a uniform service to parents and relatives who seek assurance as to the welfare of the child.
Before concluding I refer to the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. I agree unreservedly with everything that he said. I agree that there is a lack of prospective adopters. I agree with what he said about unmarried couples. I agree with what he said about the provisions being sufficiently flexible to be applied by the court and that it is wrong to ban homosexual couples. The right reverend Prelate put this whole matter in its true and correct perspective. That is my personal opinion.
In conclusion, albeit that the process of adoption will continue to suffer a sea change, and has done so since 1971, the principle embodied in the leading case of In Re W has not and, for example, would extend to apply to circumstances which did not arise in that case, such as those embodied in Clause 1(4)(e) and 1(5) of the Bill. Ought not that decision, which broke the mould of outworn precedent and pre-empted the Children Act of 1995 on the interests of the child—expressly acknowledged in Clause 1(2) of the Bill—to continue to tell the judge all that he needs to know?
My Lords, I do not intend to go into points of detail on the Bill but I should like to put down a marker that I shall, if I can, at later stages of the Bill, try to address the problem that today children are adopted much too late.
I wish briefly to examine the background against which we have to consider the Bill. Those of your Lordships who, like me, spent most of last Monday and Tuesday watching the jubilee festivities on television will have seen thousands of happy families and thousands of happy, secure and well loved children. Those, of course, are the majority. But there is, and always has been, a minority of the nation's children who, through no fault of their own, are born into families who simply cannot cope and who are not able to give their children the love, security and support they need. Being a good parent today is probably more difficult than it has ever been. For that reason too many children are inevitably being short-changed. They are not getting the security, love and support that they need to develop to their full potential.
Why does that matter so much? It matters so much for two reasons: first, because those children are being denied equality of opportunity for the whole of their lives; and, secondly, because it adversely affects our society as a whole. Although at any one time children comprise 20 per cent of the population, as has often been said, they comprise 100 per cent of the nation's future. It is today's children who will pay our pensions in a very few years' time. Functional families play a key role in the nurture of the nation's children. It may be too fanciful to suggest that the evolution of the human race has depended upon stable committed families. Homo sapiens is the only higher primate whose juveniles take 15 years or more to reach mental and physical maturity. Is it a coincidence that it is the human brain which has developed so much further than that of any other primate and that at the same time it is the human species which has developed social structures to protect and educate its juveniles during the first 15 years of their lives?
Statistics show that children who grow up in a stable, protective, loving family have better life chances measured against a whole range of factors—mental and physical health, educational achievement, employment and so forth, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. For those children whose birth family cannot provide that kind of care there is self-evidently a need for surrogate families. The importance of the Bill is that it is about one kind of surrogate family which can do that job. The Bill is about mobilising a resource which is under-utilised in our society today—that reserve of good will, potential parenting ability and love which already exists in our society among many of those who cannot have children themselves or are prepared to take on more as well as their own.
We live in a society which believes in the diversity of family structures. Adoption contributes to that diversity. There is solid research evidence to show that some structures tend to work better than others. Carefully arranged and well supported adoption has a high success rate. Incidentally, statistically, it probably succeeds better than either single parent families or step families but that may be a contentious issue. That is why the Bill is important and that is why I hope that your Lordships will support it however much we have to do to improve it as it goes through this House.
I wish to make one more general point. Let us not be afraid to use the word "love". Because the word "love" is used so often by the tabloids to describe romantic love or sexual gratification, child professionals and others today prefer to talk of "caring", "relationships" and "attachment". Unselfish, dependable, forgiving love includes all those but it is also much more. Not long ago in response to a question of mine, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor pointed out that you cannot make a law that a father must love his son. Without doubt, that is true, but it is also without doubt that a child nurtured in a supportive, loving, functional family will tend to have a head start in life and that a child nurtured without love will tend to be at a disadvantage for life.
If we can get it right, this Bill should mean that significantly more of the nation's children will be able to grow up in the sort of family environment which will help them to develop to their full potential.
My Lords, first, I apologise to the House as I shall have to be absent from the Chamber for about an hour later due to a prior commitment.
The Bill is welcome and much needed. Many issues and statistics have been raised already. The Bill emphasises that the child's welfare is the paramount consideration relating to adoption—a point that has been made many times. It places new duties and rights on those providing adoption services. It sets up review mechanisms. It suggests improved information systems and incorporates several useful amendments to the Children Act 1989. I am sure that all noble Lords will agree with the Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, when he said last year 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".
I shall not go into what we might mean by "family"; kindness and lovingness are more important than debates about what constitutes a family.
I hope that debates in your Lordships' House will not become over-focused on the issue of whether unmarried couples should or should not be able to adopt. I recognise that there are strong feelings but I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, made a powerful case, based on his own experience, for recognising the facts, including the fact that our duties to children are paramount, too. Some of those children are in dire circumstances.
There are other issues in the Bill that are more important than that one. I shall raise one of them—it concerns listening to children and establishing the views of the child on adoption and care. Before I discuss that issue, I must declare an interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Children. I also want to pay tribute to the dedication and dynamism of the many voluntary organisations that work on behalf of children. They are unfailingly knowledgeable and helpful in their support and are active in making legislation for children more effective.
I move on to listening to children. More than 2.5 million children are now growing up as part of a step family and more than 1.5 million children visit a parent at the weekend and during holidays. The Children Act 1989 does not always ensure child safety when courts are considering the granting of residence and contact orders in private proceedings. That Act brought together public and private law provision. However, in public law cases, children have a guardian and a solicitor to listen to them and to present their interests in court but in private law disputes, the emphasis is on achieving an agreement between the adults concerned.
In November 2001, an amendment to Clause 1 was considered in a Special Standing Committee on the Bill. It sought to require courts or adoption agencies to speak to a child to ascertain his or her views regarding an adoption, where appropriate. Adopting at the moment can take place without any consultation with the child. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Jacqui Smith, had sympathy with the amendment; she is well known for her concern for children's rights. Regulations and guidance were envisaged that would clarify how children might be involved in the decision-making process. I wonder whether the Minister would update the House on progress with such guidance and on how the Government will support the involvement of children. That issue should go across all legislation and I, for one, will continue to highlight the need to consult children on matters that affect them. Numerous surveys show that children want to be consulted and have clear opinions on what is best for them. We do them, and our system, a disfavour by not learning from their views.
The present system is based on two assumptions. The first is that, provided the parents agree, the arrangements will be in the best interest of the child. The second assumption is that parents will act reasonably and always in the best interest of the child. Those assumptions are not always correct and can have dangerous consequences. Some children may be forced to maintain contact with a violent or abusive parent—that was discussed by my noble friend Lady Gould. Another assumption may be that the child's mind may have been poisoned by the other parent. Courts may not be able to identify children at risk because independent evidence on a child's behalf is lacking. In the majority of cases—provided that parents agree—there is no objective scrutiny of proposed arrangements for children or any consultation on their wishes. Judges are dependent on the written statement of arrangements or parenting plan documents that are compiled by the adult parties—the parents. Parenting plans are useful but they perhaps underestimate the acrimony and distress that can accompany divorce or separation.
During the passage of the Family Law Act 1996, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, expressed the view of the committee when he said that it would be desirable that the interests of children have representation in some way. Section 64 recognised the possible conflict that could arise between parents and children in private proceedings. Much of that Act, including Section 64, was shelved.
This Bill gives us the possibility of ensuring provision that is child centred and which can identify children at risk and provide courts with criteria for independent representation of their interests. There have been cases in which children have been murdered during unsupervised or unsuitable contact. Many others have been put at risk from domestic violence or warring parents. No child should be or wants to be in that position, but their views are denied.
Criteria for separate representation for children could be drawn up. They could include: cases in which parents are quarrelling and creating a situation that is not conducive to a child's best interest; where there is a history of violence; where contact with a non-violent parent is being denied; where a court accepts the need for medical or psychological reports on a child; where there is a conflict of interest between one or both parents, which could include conflicts arising in future as a result of the child disagreeing with court-approved arrangements that were made when the child was very young; and where the child is the subject of divorce proceedings for the second time or for subsequent times.
There are anomalies in our current system. Vulnerable children are at risk. That is inequitable and questionable in relation to the human rights of the child. The law must be clear and unequivocal about blocking that loophole and must include, in my view, the children's right to be heard. I hope that the Minister will give us some reassurance that the Bill will improve the situation and ensure that the best interests of the child are served even better by listening to those most affected—the children themselves.
My Lords, I have two very positive reasons for supporting adoption. First, both my husband and I each have a very special cousin who has come into the family through adoption. Secondly, during my 33 years on the Bench, the most rewarding times were when I had the privilege of being involved in the adoption process.
One of the most enlightening pieces of legislation on the statute book is that which gives children who have suffered a trauma of some magnitude the opportunity of a new loving beginning and which gives to the adopting parents the precious gift for which they have longed. That may sound very simplistic but in the majority of cases that is how it is.
I welcome the Bill and its intention to make the needs of children paramount and at the heart of the whole process. I am glad that it had its origins in my party's review that took place in 1992. I am grateful to my honourable friend Mrs Caroline Spelman, who highlighted the issue of adoption and got it on to the agenda.
Over the years, the situation has changed. Far fewer adoptions take place—only 4,000 per year now, compared with 20,000 30 years ago. The proportion of children adopted from care has increased from 7 per cent to around 50 per cent over the same period. Thirty years ago, most were babies but now two-thirds are under five and 5 per cent are 10 or over.
I am also pleased that in 2000, the Prime Minister took the initiative of having a review of the adoption of looked-after children in care. In his personal introduction to the report, the Prime Minister commented on an anti-adoption culture within social work. He said:
"Too often in the past adoption has been seen as a last resort. Too many local authorities have performed poorly in helping children out of care and into adoption. Too many prospective parents have been confused, or put off by the process of applying to adopt, and the time the whole process takes".
I agree wholeheartedly with those sentiments. It is indeed horrific that we have an abundance of prospective adoptive parents and a wealth of children who are suitable and ready to join a new family but an organisation that does not place them but which keeps them within the care system. In addition, I deplore the culture of political correctness, which has no place in circumstances as sensitive as adoption, if it has any place in our lives at all. My right honourable friend Iain Duncan Smith is deeply concerned that that is a stumbling block. He has also raised the problem that in some local authorities couples wishing to adopt have been rejected because they are of a different race from that of the child. It seems to me that some local authorities have gone way beyond filtering out unsuitable adopters, and many applicants appear to be put off at an early stage in the process by the general response that they receive.
In a case study that came to light in May this year, a married couple took two-and-a-half years successfully to adopt a girl aged four. They found the process,
"a total nightmare. It was too painful. There is too much incompetence, too much thoughtlessness and too much political correctness. Some of it defies reason".
What a condemnation of a system that is supposed to be helping children to a better life. Those particular applicants were interviewed in a dozen two-hour meetings spread over six months by a social worker, who, as they said, grilled them about their marriage, sex life, previous sexual relationships, finances, childhood, attitudes to racism, to disability, to multi-culturalism and to smacking. Twice they were turned down because the wife was potentially fertile. As the journalist who wrote about that couple's experience said:
"Some are turned down for good reason, but many perfectly good candidates just give up half way, humiliated and wrung dry by the long, drawn-out process".
Ninety-five per cent of adoptions are carried out by married people, and I believe that that should remain the case. The Office for National Statistics figures show that cohabiting couples are six-and-a-half times more likely than a married couple to split up within five years of the birth of a child. Adoption requires a commitment for life, but cohabiting couples seem unable to give that to each other. Therefore, I find it hard to believe that they could make that life commitment to a child.
Current legislation reflects the unique place of marriage in society. There is no doubt that marriage and the legal commitment that the couple have made to each other gives them the stability that is essential. Children in care have suffered enough and are often already the casualties of broken relationships. They need constancy and the security of life on an even keel. After all, it seems to me that, if unmarried applicants are keen enough to accept the responsibility of a child for life, it is not asking much of them to go through a form of marriage.
The other 5 per cent of adoptions are carried out by single people. Again, I hope that that situation will continue. I accept that children develop best when they have both male and female role models in the home. I understand that as I grew up without the benefit of my father, who died when I was 10. Single-parent families can work well. Indeed, in some cases, a child might gain from having just one caring parent.
I know of one case where a married couple with two sons adopted a daughter. Before the final procedure was completed, the husband was drowned but the wife went ahead with the adoption on her own. The daughter brought as great a joy to her mother and brothers as they brought to her.
In another place, an amendment was accepted to allow children to be adopted jointly by cohabiting same-sex couples. I have listened and wrestled with the arguments that that form of adoption does not disadvantage children. I respect other views, but I know that I could never support an Act legalising such a practice. I hope that this House will reverse the decision of another place and ask honourable Members to think again.
This is an important Bill and I am certain that your Lordships will give it the closest scrutiny. One thing is certain: I am sure that it will leave this House having had the utmost care that it and the children it will serve definitely deserve.
My Lords, I give a very warm welcome to the Bill. It is a quarter of a century since the last Adoption Bill. If one considers the enormous changes in society and in attitudes over those years, the Bill is overdue. In fact, it completes a lot of the work that went into the Children Act 1989. That was a good Act and I am proud to have played a part when it was going through this House. One aim of the present Bill is to bring it into line with that Act. Clause 1(2) states that the paramount consideration of the court or adoption agency must be the welfare of the child throughout his life, as is the case in the Children Act.
There have been huge changes in the adoption scene. In 1971, 21,495 children were adopted. In 2001, the figure was 5,500. For babies under 12 months old in 2000, 2,200 were in care and only 200 were adopted. So we can understand the Government's concern and why they aim to increase adoption by 40 per cent by 2005. I am sure that, with listening Ministers, we shall have an interesting and satisfactory Committee stage, as, indeed, was had in the Commons. I hope that the concerns that some of us have about certain aspects of the Bill can be sorted out and the Bill improved.
One of those concerns is about support for adopters after and, indeed, before adoption. The Minister mentioned that, as did many other people. As the Bill stands, adopters have the right only to an assessment of their needs. Those may be very significant if the children have experienced neglect and abuse. They may well have educational and health needs. They may have been moved a great number of times, either in care or in foster homes. But assessment alone is no help.
There should be a duty on local authorities to provide services, and there must be funding to pay for them. So far as I can see, there is no statement in the Bill about its financial implications. We know that certain moneys have been promised but we do not know exactly whether they will be enough. The Bill will give rise to huge financial implications and I hope that there will be sufficient to pay for training, which will be extremely necessary. Having read the Bill, I believe that the situation will be complicated, and social workers will have much work to do to get round it. Perhaps, in responding, the Minister will say something about the financial implications. I hope that he will also say when the Bill will be implemented as it is not clear to me when that will be.
I turn to another aspect—information and transparency. The situation is much better than it used to be, but surely a child's history should be available at the time of matching and should not be left until he moves in with the adoptive family when a placement order is made.
The Bill contains some excellent provisions which will allow birth parents and other birth relatives to be assisted in initiating contact with their adult adopted children. That will take place through the provision of an intermediary service by the adoption agencies or local authorities. Of course, most children now have clear memories of their birth families. But—this is important—these provisions will apply only to adoptions that take place after the Bill comes into force.
A generation of women who gave up their children between 1945 and 1980 have made repeated efforts, without success, to find out about their adopted children. Are they still alive? What have they made of their lives? Would contact perhaps be helpful? Those birth parents have no wish to interfere but they want to be there should they be wanted. That right should be made retrospective. Some agencies provide such a service, but not all. Surely this is a basic human right. What possible reason can there be for not giving that basic right?
I now want to mention a few points which are of concern to a consortium of adoption and associated agencies. I believe that the manner in which they have got together is very good. About 20 agencies have met and agreed what they want to do to change and improve the Bill. Therefore, it is important that we take note of their points. These matters were in fact the subject of amendments in the Commons but, unfortunately, due to the guillotine, there was insufficient time for them to be discussed. The issues remain live and, although they are too technical to raise in this debate, it would be helpful if the Government would, at this stage, give a preliminary response to the following questions.
First, how is the proposed wording for dispensing with consent in Clause 51(1)(b) compatible with the Human Rights Act 1998? The concern is that the simple welfare test in that clause will be in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention because it is no different from the ground for any other Children Act order, such as a residence or special guardianship order. Yet, given that adoption is irrevocable, European case law suggests that there need to be exceptional circumstances to justify the state overturning parental consent.
My second question is whether the Government are willing to consider introducing a placement order in every case, including consent cases. That would be fairer to all parties because it would give greater clarity and certainty to the adopters that once the placement order is made there is little chance of turning back. That would give them greater confidence to invest emotionally in a child placed with them without the fear that the mother might change her mind and ask for the child to be returned. It would make clear to a consenting parent that once an order is made there is very little chance of reversing the placement. It would also ensure that members of the wider family have sufficient opportunity to make representations and come forward as potential carers before it is too late. While that might raise initial fears that it will increase expense and delay, there are compelling reasons for doing that, not least that the very complicated provisions concerning restrictions on removal in Clauses 29 to 34 could be simplified. If those points are ignored, it is likely that there may be a number of time-consuming and expensive appeals, which in themselves may cause detrimental delay to children in need of placement.
My third question is whether parents and children will be parties to adoption proceedings as opposed to placement order proceedings. If they are not, the court will not have the opportunity to canvass their views about contact issues and will hear evidence from only the adopters and the adoption agencies about whether adoption, as opposed to any other option, is best for the child. Given the finality of adoption, it does not seem right for the court to be presented with a partial view. My noble friend Lady Massey spoke of the importance of hearing the views of children.
My last question on this issue is what will be the role of the CAFCASS officer? Will it include investigative functions in consensual as well as non-consensual cases? It would be helpful to hear the Government's views on those matters in order to inform the work of the Committee in considering which amendments to table.
My final point concerns intercountry adoption. The Minister told us of some of the safeguards which have been put in place, which are welcome. However, I am anxious about our reputation abroad. Some countries—India, for example—refuse to deal with us. Chile, Costa Rica, the Ukraine, Russia and Vietnam are all unhappy with the United Kingdom procedures and would like to see proper agencies in the UK with which they can deal.
There are also concerns among many countries about the UK's attitude to immigration requirements and nationality. They want to see guarantees that those will be fulfilled easily and properly for the child rather than left to the discretion of officials at the time of entry. There is also the question of the ratification of the Hague convention on intercountry adoption, which Britain signed in 1994. Both that convention and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child state that intercountry adoption is a legitimate solution for children who have no chance of family life in their native country. The Department of Health recently said that ratification would yet again be delayed until next year. I appreciate, of course, that overseas adoptions may not be a burning issue for the Government at this moment when they are encouraging an increase in our own adoptions by 40 per cent.
This is a good Bill but I think that it can be improved. I look forward to Committee stage. I know that we have a number of interested Ministers who care about what we do.
My Lords, along with my colleagues, I welcome the Adoption and Children Bill, which reflects the Government's determination to complete the overhaul of adoption services to ensure that children have successful, lasting placements with positive outcomes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, reminded us how complex childcare matters are. Adoption procedures are even more difficult and complex. There is one simple principle, set out by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, which we can all follow and hold central and which has been repeated throughout this debate; that is, to ensure that the needs of children remain paramount throughout every consideration. It is not a question of balance. Adoption is not about finding children to meet adult needs to form a family; nor about dogma around what constitutes a family. It is about finding the right placement for children to grow up with love and security. More than that, it establishes the right of children to know their origins, having the opportunity to build bridges between the past and the present.
It was therefore with some relief that one found that the surprise proposal to remove the rights of adopted people to access identifying information about their birth parents had been dropped. I ask for reassurance from the Minister that that will not be reintroduced. Indeed, I hope that we can look to retrospective legislation so that more people can find out about the origins and the fate of their children.
There is no doubt that when it works adoption is the best answer for children left without a family, particularly children who have had the insecurity of growing up in care. But that security is lost in many and varied situations. I have spent most of my life working in social services or social care. It has always been clear to me that most—not all—children would prefer to retain contact with their birth family. That is why I am concerned about the dispensation wording in the Bill. It is easy in many circumstances to be convinced that the welfare of the child requires the consent to be dispensed with. It is much more difficult to meet the test that adoption would be so significantly better for the child than any other option as to justify overriding the parents' wishes. That should be added to the welfare checklist, which includes the consideration that alternatives to adoption have been adequately explored and eliminated.
As a social worker—I feel I need to speak up for social workers in this debate—I declare an interest because that is my profession, of which I am immensely proud. I remind noble Lords that matching children in families is an extraordinarily difficult process. There have been delays in the past. Social workers have been confused by the instructions of their local authorities. Some authorities are very pressurising about continuing to protect a child's family home and then have a different instruction about meeting targets for adoption. Consistency for social workers has given them the context in which they have been able to move forward and we have seen the results outlined in statistics, which I shall not repeat.
However, we must not become sentimental about placement. A small percentage of children are extraordinarily difficult to place. Anecdotally, perhaps I may say that I spent some weeks recently supporting two friends as they watched their adopted child die in hospital. She was the result of a difficult background. She was one of two adopted children, one who has succeeded the other. That has had a devastating effect on the rest of the family. These are very real, difficult situations.
There are provisions for time checks and targets in the Bill, recognising that speed is essential in the lives of children. However, it is also essential that real, deep, proper assessments are made. We should remind ourselves that large numbers of adoptions break down. I would ask the Minister that during this time when we are trying to speed up placement, we undertake enough research to understand what element it is within that placement that leads to breakdown.
In welcoming this legislation, and generally the good concern and protection it affords for children, I turn briefly to two other aspects. As I have said, most children are best placed with their birth family, and, when that is not possible, with an adoptive family. We all agree on that. But it is not true for all children. There is a substantial concern that the existing legal system fails to protect children from abusers who are known to them.
One of my colleagues mentioned that in recent years 15 children have been killed in England and Wales as a result of contact arrangements. Many more have suffered abuse and trauma. When I was chief executive of Childline, we undertook a survey in order to find out how many children called to complain that their mothers were forcing them to make false allegations about their fathers. Children call Childline about every conceivable situation, but we could not find one case—not one case—in that category. What we found were frightened, angry and, often, sobbing children, begging us to explain why they had to go to see an abusive, often sexually offending father and why no one could do anything about it.
Contrast that with the care with which we aim to ensure the placement of adopted children. If it is known that there is a violent offender in an adoptive home the placement simply will not take place. But, as yet, the Government do not ensure that contact or residence arrangements are safe for a child. While welcoming the Government's intention to extend the definition of "harm" in the Children Act to include witnessing domestic violence, it is essential that there is an assessment of risk in private law, contact or residence proceedings.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, said, we pay much lip service to listening to children, but what prevents us from listening to those children in those circumstances? There is something incoherent about law which requires the court to set a higher standard of proof in cases involving more serious allegations, where the views of children who do not want contact with a non-resident parent are dismissed, and where there is no representation for the child. Just as adoption secures as safe as possible a home for a child, so we must ensure that contact or residence orders are safe for children.
We do not hear these children because there is no independent representation on their behalf. Childline, Barnardo's, the NSPCC, the Children's Society, the national youth advocacy scheme and Women's Aid hear these children's cries, but who speaks for them? There is no direct social work reporting into the system and children have no entitlement to legal representation.
I support the British Agency for Adoption and Fostering and other adoption agencies in pressing for the last minute amendment which allows unmarried couples jointly to adopt. We are in a changing world. Every day 650 children see their parents divorce or separate; 300,000 children have parents who have been married before to other people; and over 2.5 million children are growing up as part of a stepfamily. Family patterns are changing. Many children seeking new adoptive families would face an alternative of care with all the uncertainty that that brings.
I hope that this part of the debate will not become focused on issues around gay adoption—they are so few—but on finding the right placement for the child. Children's needs vary. It is the child's needs that are important. To quote the leader of The Times:
"Laws which prevent responsible citizens providing love for the most vulnerable in our society are laws ripe for reform".
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that I use the word "love" frequently, even though I am a professional social worker. It is a very important word. Or maybe we are saying that only marriage gives one the responsibility in society. In that case I do not qualify and neither do several colleagues in the House.
I have spent most of my life involved with vulnerable, difficult and high-need children. They deserve the best individual assessment to meet their individual needs. They deserve a family to fit their needs, not to reinforce any lifestyle—married or unmarried—but to give them love and stability.
As the debate progresses, let us keep the children at the front of the debate, listen to them and ensure that they are represented, and, in appropriate circumstances, properly supported and protected.
My Lords, before we proceed any further, it has been pointed out to me that a number of your Lordships may be in the Chamber quite properly in order to hear the Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill debate. Those noble Lords may not have seen on the screens that it has been agreed that that debate will not take place today but is postponed until Friday 21st June. I thought that it might be helpful for noble Lords to know that.
My Lords, I start by congratulating the Government on bringing forward this legislation. I think that they have set themselves and us an ambitious target by proposing an increase of 40 per cent in the national adoption target by 2004-2005. I wish them the best in fulfilling it. I also applaud their aim of providing children in care with better educational support, as well as speeding up the time it takes courts to administer the adoption process. Those measures are long overdue and deserve our support.
This debate, as many noble Lords have said, is first and foremost about children. Out of the 58,000 children in institutional care, 5,000 children nationwide are currently waiting for an adoptive family. We are the fourth richest nation in the world. It is a sad comment on our society that we can tolerate so many children living in institutional care and/or waiting for adoptive families. We have an opportunity over the coming years to address some of those issues.
First, I must warn the House that the Bill is in danger of being hijacked by a debate about the eligibility of unmarried couples to adopt, and, in particular, the eligibility of same sex couples to adopt. I ask the House to think very carefully about who the victims are of this hijack. It will not be the Christian Institute which seeks to reinforce marriage—whose position I completely oppose in this debate—or Stonewall (which I support) which seeks to reinforce the rights of gay and lesbian couples. The victims will be the silent ones, for they have no soap-box: they are the children in the children's homes; they are the young waiting for parents; and they are the vulnerable that need—in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne—love.
We should be bigger in this House and not allow what is best for children to be sidelined in this debate. We should be able to discuss sensibly the future of these children—I know the majority of your Lordships want to do so—without polarising our positions into a debate more fitting of Section 28 than the care of our children.
My starting point, like that of many other noble Lords, is the welfare of children. What is best for those children? I ask those who oppose the extension of adoption of children to unmarried couples to think again. I do not care if this House puts unmarried couples and same-sex couples to the back of the adoption queue. Let married couples have priority, if that is what your Lordships want. But we must face reality, because there is no adoption queue. There is no queue of couples waiting to adopt these children. Until there is, it is simply immoral—and I choose my words carefully—that these children are being brought up in an institution when there are loving couples willing to adopt them.
Even if one extra couple finds one extra child and creates a home and gives him a chance to unlock his potential, this Bill will have served its purpose. I shall watch the debate carefully. I shall listen to all that is said. But I put on notice those people who seek to restrict the extension of adoption to unmarried couples, or those who try to hijack this debate. You have a moral obligation to those children in institutional care and you will have to make a case to them as to why you wish to deny them access to loving homes. If you cannot do that, or your arguments run short, I hope that this House will stand up, not for the rights of unmarried couples, gay couples, or even for the rights of married couples, but for the children who need a loving, caring home.
This is indeed a debate about morality—a complex morality—but more importantly, it is about the needs of children. The needs of children need to be placed at the centre of this debate, not political correctness nor Christian intolerance. Adoption is about finding parents for children, not children for parents. It is absurd that there are children without homes and couples who want to adopt them. The choice is not between married couples versus unmarried couples; it is about unmarried couples versus a life of institutional care. We all know what that involves. The Bill has a strong sense of moral purpose and I hope that petty intolerance will not stand in its way.
My Lords, I greatly welcome the Bill, as have all your Lordships who have spoken this afternoon. Currently, the average wait for a child prior to adoption is, as the Minister said, two years and nine months. The measures in the Bill, the adoption register and post-adoption support services among them, should decrease that delay and increase the number of children adopted—we hope by as many as 1,100 by 2005, as the Government intend.
Increasingly, older children with more complex needs are being adopted. Outcomes for such children are far better in adoption than in care. I shall concentrate my remarks on the importance of stability for such children—stability that adoption often provides. I shall seek reassurance that the Bill's provisions for adoption support go far enough. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, the noble Baronesses, Lady Barker and Lady Young, and other noble Lords all expressed strong concern on that point. I shall consider the safety of children in contact arrangements for non-resident parents. I shall ask for the Bill to include a duty on local authorities to provide children in care or who have left care with an independent advocate—that service to be available to them when they make a complaint.
Who are those are older children with complex needs? David Pelzer was such a child. I shall cite from his biography.
"'You've made my life a living hell!' she sneered. 'Now it's time I showed you what hell is like.' Gripping my arm, Mother held it in the orange-blue flame. My skin seemed to explode from the heat. I could smell the scorched hairs from my burnt arm. As hard as I fought, I could not force Mother to let go of my arm. Finally I fell to the floor, on my hands and knees, and to tried to blow cool air on my arm . . . Mother then ordered me to climb up onto the stove and lie on the flames so she could watch me burn".
Another such child was Alison Cooper. She was a victim of violent incest from the age of 10. Audley Harrison was such a child. Now he is Commonwealth and Olympic super-heavyweight champion. He was expelled from school at the age of 15 for fighting. Recently, he visited the House of Lords under the auspices of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. He told of the winter days when his father called him out naked into the garden and proceeded to flog him with a set of car battery leads. His father alternated between beating him and taking a drink of his beer. I apologise to him if I have misremembered any of the details of his story.
One of the key means of compensating for such traumatic childhoods is providing stability. Had those children with complex needs been taken into care in either England or Wales, would they have found stability? Most likely not. For those looked-after children in residential homes, there is a widespread problem of staff retention—far greater in some geographical areas than in others. Many staff are temporary, attached to agencies. Staff turnover is high; staff leave with a little or no warning. All looked-after children are at risk of suffering from the flux in social work provision. There is considerable difficulty keeping one social worker and one looked-after child together over a period of time.
The Government are seeking to address that problem of instability. The "Quality Protects" scheme has been making some headway and has been widely welcomed. For instance, it has introduced training for most care staff to National Vocational Qualification level 3. It has funded teaching assistants for looked-after children in schools and has set a target of a maximum of three placements per annum for a looked-after child.
Under the heading of stability, the number of placements in foster care, residential care or otherwise causes the greatest concern, as many of your Lordships have said. Five per cent of looked-after children experience more than 10 moves. I am advised by Professor Jackson of the Institute of Education and the Coram Family that approximately half of looked-after children in long-term care experience frequent moves. A child may have little notice of a move. He may move into a home of strangers whom he has never met before. He may well leave behind pets and friends. He will sometimes have to leave his school. Professor Jackson reports often meeting children who have experienced between 10 and 20 moves and meeting one 12 year-old who had had 52 placements.
So the boost to adoption that the Bill provides is most welcome because adoption can, under the right circumstances, provide far greater stability in the long term for children who have been in public care. I welcome the duty on local authorities to provide a post-adoption support service, to produce a post-adoption support plan, to provide post-adoption key working and to provide assessment for those who wish it.
I am concerned—I look to the Minister for reassurance on this point—that if there is no duty on local authorities to meet the needs of adoptive families as recognised in their assessment, we may yet fail the older children with complex needs for whom we are most anxious. Young couples may adopt such children believing that they will receive the support that they are likely to need. In a few years' time—perhaps after the Government's target of 2005—many of those couples may realise that they have been encouraged to take on society's most difficult and troubled children without receiving adequate support. As appears to be the case with our doctors, nurses, teachers and social workers, as a body, they may become disillusioned. Fewer adopters may come forward. The long-term project of finding the best homes for older children with complex needs may fail.
I recognise the budgetary constraints on the Minister. Local authorities are already overspending considerably and two-thirds of their overspend is directed at looked-after children. I hope that that figure is correct. However, given the long-term adverse costs of failing adequately to nurture those children, which have been so clearly described by other noble Lords, I hope that the Minister will sympathetically consider placing a further duty on local authorities.
Turning to a new subject, concern has been expressed about contact arrangements for non-resident parents. The noble Baronesses, Lady Howarth and Lady Gould, spoke eloquently on that point. I shall say only that it is estimated that about 30 per cent—15,000—of such cases feature domestic violence. It is recognised that the current provision for the supervision and support of contact is inadequate. I know that the Lord Chancellor's Department is beginning to address that. Could the Bill be used to raise more funds for essential contact services? For instance, might a charge on perpetrators of domestic violence for supervision be a helpful innovation? Such a charge is already extracted in the United States.
Finally, the children's consortium including the NSPCC, Barnardo's, and Voice for the Child in Care, of which I am patron, has been seeking to obtain a duty on local authorities to furnish children in public care and care leavers with an independent advocate when the child or care leaver has a complaint. It has sought that for three years. The Bill may be the last opportunity for several years to grant children that right in statute. Given all that we know about the experience of care and given what I said about stability, I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to my request.
I welcome the improved prospects that the Bill brings for providing good, loving and stable homes for children in the situation once faced by people such as David Pelzer, Alison Cooper and the other young man whom I mentioned, as they start out in life.
My Lords, the Bill is a major overhaul of the adoption system. I welcome many of its provisions. In the main, it builds on the significant work undertaken by the Conservative government to improve the framework for adoption in this country. It is fitting that we should pay tribute to the work of the honourable Member for Meriden, who did so much in the other place to return the issue to prominence. I also pay tribute to the work done by professional and voluntary agencies. I agree with the Minister that we should be grateful to families who adopt and foster children.
No one could fail to be moved by the stories of so many children who are waiting for adoption. I was deeply moved by the family-finding magazines Children Who Wait and Be My Parent. More and more children enter the care system with ever greater problems, caused by neglect and abuse. The hurt is obvious behind the smiles of the children in those magazines. We must ask why society is willing to allow such children to be so harmed before anything is done for them, by which time their problems are difficult—often impossible—to unravel. Such children need a loving, stable environment as much as those who remain with their birth family.
Children who are emotionally disabled as a result of neglect in the first months of life are the hardest to help. Such children place the greatest strain on adoptive families. There is a crisis of need among children of isolated single parents—mainly mothers—who abuse drugs and alcohol. Often, those mothers are exploited by a series of male partners, and they are likely to neglect their children, who are also at risk from those partners.
There is increasing evidence from neuroscience and neurobiology that neglect in the first months of life profoundly affects the development of a child's brain. Often, such children will be hyperactive and unable to concentrate or to form bonds of affection with other human beings. If they are boys, they are likely to be antisocial and aggressive; if they are girls, they will be withdrawn and depressed. They are prone to mental illness in childhood or later life. Because the damage has occurred at a critical period of brain development, it is impossible to cure it. That is why love is not enough. Families adopting a child who has been neglected or abused must have access to support from properly trained doctors, therapists, social workers and psychologists. Striking statistics from the Department of Health show a steady rise in the number and proportion of children coming into care because of the risk of—or actual—abuse or neglect.
Recently, there has been a small but encouraging growth in the number of fostering and adoption placements of children with physical, emotional or behavioural disabilities. In practice, however, many such children have experienced multiple failures in placement. If stability of placement for any moved child is to be maintained, children need thorough assessment and active co-operation between the health, education and social services to ensure good quality care and support.
The Government's response to the Children's Safeguards Review document of November 1998 included sensible recommendations for improving multi-agency co-operation. They included the pooling of budgets by social services and the NHS and the piloting of joint reviews, involving the Social Services Inspectorate, Ofsted and the Audit Commission. In 1991, in his review, Children in the Public Care, Sir William Utting expressed concern at the particular vulnerability of children with disabilities. He emphasised the need for the appointment of independent visitors who would play an important role in protecting children from abuse, providing access to representation and complaints procedures and monitoring the child's care plan.
The backdrop to the Bill is the radical change in the nature of adoption over the past 30 years. In 1970, there were 20,000 adoptions; now, there are only 4,000. The number of children in care is, typically, now around 58,000. That provides its own challenges. Children who have been in care and who may be older are a more complicated prospect for adopting families. The problems that attach to children in care are serious. Sixty-seven per cent have an identifiable mental health issue; around 30 per cent have special educational needs; and 70 per cent leave care without any primary educational qualifications. They are 60 times more likely than members of the general population to end up homeless. Of all male prisoners under 21, 39 per cent have been looked-after children. Those statistics mask numerous tales of personal tragedy.
Many married couples would like to adopt. The problem is the delays that occur between each stage of the system. Worse still are the manifestly unjust and irrelevant recommendations on adopters' lifestyles that have been identified by the Government's Performance and Innovation Unit. I hope that the rules relating to mixed-race couples and older couples can be relaxed to widen the scope for adoption by married couples.
I welcome the commitment to the improvement of adoption support services. That is a step towards providing a better framework for assessing the needs of adoptive parents and ensuring that the child and the parents have the best possible environment for care. Similarly, the improved registration processes will provide greater assurance of quality and effectiveness, coupled with greater consistency. However, I have a problem with the Bill's definition of couples who are suitable to be adoptive parents. The interests of the child must be paramount in all cases, and the Bill aims to enshrine that as a cardinal principle of adoption policy. Although I accept the genuine desire to expand the pool of potential parents, I do not accept that that should drive adoption policy at the expense of the child.
An adoptive child, even in the most stable environment has a great deal with which to cope emotionally. Feelings of rejection and the problems of coming to terms with the concept of adoption are considerable. I am, therefore, concerned at the plans to include unmarried and homosexual couples. Marriage has the strongest potential to create a powerful, stable unit. Unmarried couples who have children are six and a half times more likely to split up than married couples. Looked-after children are already the casualties of broken relationships. It cannot be right to place them in an environment in which, according to the statistics, history—in the form of custody battles and the like—is likely to be repeated. The necessary long-term commitment to the child is much more likely if the long-term commitment of marriage is present.
The question of homosexual couples as adoptive parents is in my view even more clear cut. The welfare of the child is the most important element. I am not an intolerant Christian, but I do not believe that homosexual couples would provide as stable a foundation for adoption as a heterosexual couple. A great stain would be placed on the child as he or she grows up.
The points of concern I have raised are serious ones, but the Bill has much to commend it. I look forward to its next stages and to helping constructively to ensure the best possible framework within which adoption may continue to play a pivotal role in securing stable and loving families for children who desperately need them.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Barker, in a memorably humane and broadly based speech which demonstrated her grasp of the difficult issues lying behind the Bill, has laid down the broad approach these Benches will take. I shall deal with a few details rather than attempt to parallel the strength of her speech.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Lord, Lord Astor, who spoke immediately before me, like many noble Lords highlighted the benefits to children of adoptive parents as compared with life in a dangerous or unsuitable birth family or in a children's home. It is for that reason that, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Astor, I support the availability to children of stable and loving homes provided by unmarried or single-sex couples.
I give wholehearted support to the emphasis that my noble friend laid on the importance of post-adoption support. As she said, whereas the obligatory assessment of post-adoption support of both adoptive parents and adopted children has been widely welcomed, there has been equally widespread concern that the provision of such support is not obligatory.
The Minister may feel that he can reassure us that the Government's intention is to make post-adoption support available to parents and children who need it when they need it and at the level at which they need it, but I doubt he will be able to convince us without detailed examination of the relevant clauses in Committee. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that the cost of such services, as and when they are provided, is likely to be far less than the cost of remedying other problems such as offending behaviour, and we should not forget that family breakdown is the single greatest predictor of such behaviour.
I have witnessed a young offender's distress and desperation at the cruelty he has both witnessed and suffered in his parental home and his realisation that his own capacity to relate to others has been damaged by his childhood experience. We must bear that in mind at all times. This is one area where putting first the child's long-term interest will deeply repay society as well as assisting in the creation of a stable adoptive family. The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, told us how difficult that is.
I turn to intercountry adoptions, which were dealt with in great detail by the noble Baroness, Lady David. At this stage in the debate, with another 15 speakers still to come, I shall not repeat all her comments, but I thought her approach was completely right and we on these Benches support it. Some argue that intercountry adoptions are undesirable in themselves. But if we are concerned with providing children with a better option than upbringing in care, we should accept that such adoptions are a legitimate solution to their problems as well as to the problems of those who wish to adopt and cannot find a suitable child in this country.
I hope that as a result of Committee we shall be able to go further into that part of the Bill and reassure ourselves that it is properly laid out. Surely we should at least try to ensure that all children brought into this country have the same care devoted to them? In that respect, I turn to a matter that is not, strictly speaking, adoption. The Climbie case illustrated the dangers of children brought in by parents who do not have any particular status with regard to the care offered to them by social services. In that case both parents and the child came from abroad. It became evident to many people that the child was in danger and yet, through circumstances there is no point in discussing here, the child died.
Whoever the children are and whatever the circumstances in which they are placed in this country, we must be concerned that such children are more vulnerable and their interests should be given as much support as possible.
I support all those who have spoken about the need to give children a voice and to listen to that voice. Throughout my reading of the Bill I have tried to put myself in the position of the child. My question has been, "When do I get a look in?" We are often not talking about very small children, but quite developed children, upwards of seven or eight years, who are able to express their likes and dislikes. We should trust that expression of their likes and dislikes. Other noble Lords have referred to the need not to return children to dangerous homes. Often the children themselves will try to insist on that. Their voices must be heard, preferably through the provision of an advocate, as Section 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child provides.
I hope that we shall come to that issue and make progress with providing such an advocacy role when we come to Committee.
My Lords, I suppose I am very thick, but I wonder whether I am the only speaker to have found this Bill remarkably difficult to understand without constant reference to a number of previous Acts which are difficult to identify. It seems a pity that it could not, at the same time as introducing new material, have been a consolidation Bill, even if it would have taken longer to draft.
As I understand it, the purpose of this Bill is to make adoption easier and quicker, and so reduce the number of children in care, a very laudable and vital objective. There can be few worse fates for any child than to be brought up in care. Indeed, "in care" is a real misnomer, for in a "care" home there is no one who really cares for or loves that child, who is turned out at the age of 18 and left to fend for himself with no one to turn to in time of trouble or illness, nowhere to go for Christmas and other holidays, with no one who belongs to him and to whom he belongs. For, despite the shrill cries of some people, usually women, that they belong to no one, only to themselves, we, who are lucky enough, all belong to one another: to our parents, to our children, to our grandchildren, to our friends. Everyone pities a dog who has no owner. A human being who belongs to no one is at least as pitiable.
I have long thought that to remain even in a fairly bad home is better than to be taken into care. After all, what is the point of being removed from one source of abuse only to find oneself in another? I am afraid that only too often that is what happens. I say that having talked to children who have been in care.
I just hope that this Bill really is going to have the effect of reducing the number of children in care and increasing the number who are adopted, but I cannot help wondering. I have long understood that there were more people willing to adopt than children available for them. I think one of the greatest obstacles to adoption is the time the process takes and the hoops the prospective adopters have to go through.
Certainly safeguards are necessary and prospective adoptive parents must be carefully vetted. But this should be done with a degree of what for want of a better word I can only call tolerance. That is not always the case. Political correctness too often comes into it. People who would make perfectly adequate adoptive parents are rejected because they smoke, because their houses are too tidy or too untidy, because, having been through every known medical process in an attempt to have a baby of their own, they are considered too old, because they propose to go back to work and employ a nanny; and for a host of other frivolous reasons, some of which were mentioned by the noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Seccombe, and by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever.
The Government and the social services responsible need to remember what is the alternative for such children. I should like to see some common sense brought into this area if it is possible. But unfortunately common sense is not the kind of thing which can be written into a Bill. Still, I would like carefully to scrutinise any regulations made on this matter.
Now I turn to Clause 48. A "couple" can mean a couple who are not legally married. I think we are now on dangerous ground because, easy as divorce has now been made, it is still more difficult to part from someone to whom one is legally married than from someone with whom one is merely cohabiting. Evidence shows that a legally married couple are more likely to stay together long enough to care for a child until he or she is grown up than are a cohabiting couple. Furthermore, I would suggest that if a cohabiting couple really mean to stick together, they might consider legalising their union in order to be able to adopt.
There are a number of cohabiting couples—mostly couples where one is a person of some substance—who will not marry because under the present divorce laws a large part of their assets could be claimed by a partner in a divorce settlement. The Act which made that possible was a real gold-digger's charter and has a lot to answer for.
Then there is the question of homosexual couples, whose track record as regards permanence is, I am afraid, worse still. All in all, I suspect that the number of adoptions will not be greatly affected by confining the right to adopt—
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. At the beginning of her speech she described in detail how appalling institutional care is. She said that she would not consign any child to institutional care and that a bad home was better than such care. She also said that there are insufficient adoptive families for children, but I believe that she is wrong about that. Does she not accept that unmarried or same-sex couples will give a better home to children than institutional care?
My Lords, yes, I do accept that to live in the home of an unmarried couple would be better. However, I do not accept that the couple should adopt; I believe that one of the partners should adopt. When the partnership falls apart—and I am afraid that statistics show that that is often the case—the child will continue to be cared for by the partner who has adopted him or her. As I said, I suspect that the number of adoptions will not be greatly affected by confining the right to adopt to one person, except in the case of legally married couples for then I think a break-up, if it comes, would be less traumatic for the child, who would remain with the person who had adopted him or her.
Adoption is a form of pretence. It is probably best to keep the pretences to the minimum and not to enter into complicated games of "let's pretend" when they are for the sake of political correctness, not for the sake of the adopted child. The Minister tells us that the interests of the child must be paramount—quite rightly. As the Bill stands, they are not. It is the interests of unmarried couples which are paramount. They are not always the same.
My Lords, I want to declare an interest. I am secretary of the All-Party Children's Group and I have also been a local councillor. I have always had an interest in children in care and my experience leads me greatly to welcome the Bill. In particular, I have long-held concerns about the difficulties that prospective adopters face; notably age discrimination and other over-restrictive criteria that many social work theorists have inappropriately applied.
Children being in care is a last resort. When it is not possible for a child to be with his or her natural family, adoption is very much to be encouraged. The Bill presents the biggest overhaul of the adoption law in more than 25 years and aims to improve the futures of hundreds of vulnerable children. The Bill puts the needs of children at the centre of the adoption process and I hope it will speed up the adoption system, of which I have had personal experience at every level, to provide permanent, secure and loving families for children who cannot live with their birth family. As a Christian and practising Catholic, I am appalled at the opposition to the Bill by CARE, the so-called Christian Action, Research and Education charity.
The Bill has a simple aim to ensure that every child in society has the best possible start in life through the opportunities that flow from growing up in a stable and loving family. Today that family unit is very different from those of the post-war years. A family can be a married couple; a heterosexual couple living together; a same-sex couple living together; or grandparents. A number of children have been brought up in this way without bureaucratic involvement.
Adoption can mean a new start in life for many children, in particular children who have been in care. 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 family. I agree with Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, that adoption has too often been considered as a last resort for those children when it should have been considered the first response.
Not only have those children lost out by the failure of previous governments and councils to be progressive and the mindset of social workers who move on leaving children in care, but records are often lost and no one turns up to parents' evenings and sports days or encourages the child to take part in other school activities such as the play or concert. More than six children out of 10 leave care at 16 without a single qualification. That is not a failure of the child; it is a failure of us as a society for not making adoption less difficult.
Many prospective adopters have been treated badly, being put off by social workers and having to start a number of new relationships when social workers move on, in some cases up to six times. Each social worker has different criteria which drives potential adopters away to try to adopt abroad, paying privately, while at any one time 60,000 children are in care.
The Bill has five key aims: first—as I said at the beginning of my speech—to make children's needs paramount; secondly, to provide support for adoptive families; thirdly, to assist in making the process of adoption fairer; fourthly, to speed up the adoption process; and, fifthly, to strengthen the rigorous safeguards protecting the child, including those for inter-country adoptions. My hopes for children in care and for prospective adopters is that this Bill will provide a new start and a new, loving family life for a child, and a chance for the thousands more children who are in care to have a better future in our society.
My Lords, I ask for the understanding of the House if, after I have spoken, I leave in the vain attempt to return to Manchester tonight.
Like other noble Lords, I acknowledge the need to update the Adoption Act 1976, given that much has changed over the past 26 years, not least the age of the majority of children in need of adoption, a point already made. These children need the best possible context in which to live and grow. No child chooses to be born. Those who bring children to birth have a responsibility to do their best for their children, providing a context which is affirming of the child, loving, stable and conducive to growth.
Inevitably there are situations in which, for a variety of reasons, those who give birth to children are unable to provide such a context. That being so, it is important that the community beyond the immediate family stands by ready to do what it can to enable children to blossom and flourish; hence the practice of adoption.
I am pleased that the Bill recognises that adoption and the adoption process will function best if the welfare of the child is paramount; its safety, security, support, assimilation and opportunity to flourish. Too often casual talk has suggested overmuch emphasis in popular minds on the interests of adults, on the alleged "rights" and "freedoms" of adults, rather than on the interests and needs of children. So I very much welcome the recognition that the adoption process will function best if the best interests of children are at the centre of all decisions.
It is with the welfare of children in mind that I wish to express some concerns about the status of prospective adopters. OK, that will be unpopular and I shall wait to be told that I am prejudiced and that I am immoral. I can hear all that. I should confess that I have a vested interest, having been married for 39 years. Tut, tut. I gather that no one else in the House has been married at all or is still married after 39 years. I was married to a girl who has been involved with children in local authority care and voluntary organisation care. Furthermore, I have a son-in-law who daily is involved with teenagers and children with special needs. I could talk about my own work with the English Churches Housing Group, helping girls with special needs, but humility does not allow me to advance my speech.
The best interests of children are served by enabling them to live and grow in a loving and stable environment. We have to spell out what such stability means. It requires a commitment from adopting adults to a child throughout the child's life. Many, if not most, children who are adopted need protection against the possibility of separation from those who adopt them. All too frequently such children are already the casualties of broken relationships between parents and child and have experienced the trauma of family breakdown and separation.
Furthermore, is it wise to commit a child for life to adults who have not committed themselves to each other for life? In my judgment, when adults apply to adopt a child, the need for stability for the sake of that child should require that the adults—if they be more than one—are publicly and legally committed to each other for life. It is not in the interests of children to be placed with two adults who are not committed to each other. Many children who are adopted need protection against the worst effects of separation by the adults with whom they live. Why is that? Because so often such children are already the casualties of broken relationships between their mother and father, who have broken up, separated and often divorced.
Like many noble Lords, I would argue that more often than not the best context for any child, including an adopted child, in which to flourish is that provided by a mother and father whose commitment to one another is publicly and legally expressed in marriage. I shall give way to the noble Lord.
My Lords, I put the same question to the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy. If there is a shortage of such people, is the right reverend Prelate saying that institutional care is better than that of unmarried couples?
My Lords, I do not say that at all. I have not yet finished what I have to say. The noble Lord will hear my point in a few moments, if I may be allowed to proceed.
In speaking, I am conscious that today there is considerable pressure to equalise all relationships—female and female, female and male, male and male—and to regard all relationships as being of equal worth. That is so much so that recently I read a piece written by a Christian minister who asked:
"When did you last hear of a silver wedding celebrated on the media? I guess about once for every hundred or more divorces or splits which are reported with such evident glee. When was the last wedding anniversary enjoyed in a soap?".
But for all the understandable pressure to equalise relationships, I still want to ask: are the different types of relationship not only equal, but of equal worth? Some include no commitment adult to adult, some include a purely private commitment, while some include a public and legal commitment. We have already heard the figures in other contributions, but I am told that relationships of cohabiting couples who have children do not survive for as long as those of married couples who have children. However, I recognise that married couples' relationships also frequently break down.
If that be true, and the figures from the noble Baroness can be taken as read, then there are major differences with regard to the stability of different types of relationship. That is not to suggest that relationships are not be regarded as equally valid, to be treasured and enjoyed, but that there are differences with regard to their stability. If stability is to be one of the key considerations for adoptive children, we need to take that point seriously.
Equally, that is not to say that some cohabiting couples, whatever their gender, may not offer better loving care than some married couples. Certain married couples are quite disastrous in the care they offer their children. But rather like some 14 year-olds can drive a car better than some 24 year-olds or 64 year-olds, we have decided for whatever reason that 16 years old is the right way to go about it and that is where wisdom lies. So while not wanting to deny the fact that single people and people of the same gender sometimes can offer better care than those who are heterosexually married, we ought to proceed with some care when thinking about where the best care lies rather than simply going, as it were, for any option that is around.
We have also heard that different types of relationship offer different role models for children. Do we yet know enough about the effects on the development of children growing up within different types of adult relationship? Here again we are caught in a bind, a point made clear earlier. There is a difficulty with regard to balance. We do not have the evidence, so we cannot say yes, and because we do not have the evidence, we cannot say no.
I recognise that different types of relationship can satisfy different adult needs. I have friends who are lesbian and homosexual. Individual adults find a way of relating and not relating to other adults. Such differences are to be understood and welcomed. But I am afraid that I remain convinced—here I shall be called "prejudiced and immoral", a phrase I thought I heard used this afternoon—that if children are to have the best chance of thriving—I stress my use of the word "best" rather than "only"—then they need the security of loving and stable relationships that are publicly and legally recognised by the state, and that offer both female and male role models. That is what I understand by marriage these days.
I argue the case from that point of view. I believe that Her Majesty's Government have a continuing duty to support the notion that, while different kinds of relationships can be of value to the individuals involved in them, offering friendship, support and so forth, we should continue to accord marriage a special status among all the other important and valuable relationships that exist. Normally a married couple should be the first choice of context in which to place a child for adoption. Nothing should be done further to weaken the position of marriage in the community. However, that is not to say that ultimately it would be inappropriate to place people in need of love and care with those who are not married, but who may be single or may be couples of the same gender.
My Lords, as secretary of the All-Party Group on Adoption, I very much welcome the arrival of this Bill into the House. It aims to replace the Adoption Act 1976 and to modernise adoption laws. As has been said, adoption has changed significantly since 1976. Then there were mostly babies and younger children to adopt; today there tends to be mainly older children who, for a variety of reasons, remain in the care system for most of their childhood.
I sincerely thank the Government for introducing this forward-thinking Bill. I believe that it is one of their most important initiatives, but perhaps that is because I have a personal, direct interest in it. Adoption is not an academic interest for me but has become an important part of my life.
I wish to take your Lordships back in time five years. I witnessed a happily married young couple who very much wanted children. At first they thought it was only bad luck that they did not conceive but, over the years, they realised that perhaps they were not able to have them for medical reasons. Their dreams of birth children began to fade.
Society at the same time did not help. Comments began and there were questions about when the sound of little feet would be heard; suggestions that perhaps selfishness stopped them having children. Insensitive and unthinking remarks all made matters worse because, like any childless couple, their heartache was hidden from view.
As friends of their age began to have families, they turned their thoughts to adoption and sought advice about it. They decided to adopt a child or children and were willing to have a child with special needs. During the process of adoption there were good times and there were bad times. On the good side, there was the obvious, genuine, caring helpfulness of the key social workers involved. The initial adoption information was up-front and thorough. They were able to talk to other adoptive parents and there were thorough follow-ups from those meetings.
On the down side, after these initial helpful steps things began to deteriorate. They faced intensive and intrusive questioning, a point mentioned earlier in the debate. This questioning was weekly until they were eventually placed on the adoption panel. Then there was silence; a void of three months before they were contacted again—no letter, no phone call, no visit. Because they had successfully by this time jumped through the hoops, their specific social worker now had to move on to the next adoptions to be processed.
I use the word "processed" advisedly. On a number of occasions during the adoption procedure they were referred to as an "Essex resource", both to their faces and in correspondence, because they were calculated in that county's budget. They were told that they could not adopt from another county because of this. It is to be hoped that a national register will help in this regard, and I welcome it particularly. But we should not be talking of resources alone; these are human beings at a very vulnerable time of their lives.
They were also warned that, despite being placed on the register, they might never get a chance of adopting at a time when they were anxious and eager to give love and a home so urgently needed for so many children.
This information, when it finally arrived, came in impersonal and bureaucratic circulars, written in cold and, indeed, crass language, which emphasised to them that they were seen by the council as numbers, resources, rather than as prospective parents. By this time many less determined would-be adopters would have been put off forever. Luckily, eventually they were matched with a child—a child who, in his 10 months in care, had had four different social workers.
So began the next stage, during which the notes about this particular child were lost on a number of occasions, even the notes which included the critical assessment report needed for the court to make the county order for the adoption order to be made.
I wish to make it clear that I am not critical here of the individual social workers concerned in this case. They were, by and large, both supportive and very helpful. But I am critical of the system in which they were working, and in particular the bureaucracy surrounding it. I hope that these illustrations of faults in the current system will help to show how urgently new legislation is needed.
It is against such a background that the Government are introducing the Bill, which has been welcomed by a variety of adoption organisations. The Adoption Forum has welcomed the Bill as progressive and timely and, together with Adoption UK and After Adoption, is,
"delighted that the Bill has acknowledged the need for adoption support and that assessments for support will be provided for all parties to adoption".
The British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering state that,
"the Bill contains some excellent provisions"— and—
"with this new adoptive legislation and proper adoption support thereafter, there will be many more children who could benefit from the lifelong love and security of adoption".
The Law Society states that it,
"welcomes the focus on the welfare of children"— as do we—and the Overseas Adoption Helpline,
"welcomes the recognition of the importance of adoption support services for adopted parents, birth parents and adopted people, and that intercountry adoption is included in a comprehensive adoption service".
Of course, as with all legislation, organisations which are directly affected by it, or have specialist knowledge about it, have some criticisms of it. So it is with this Bill. Areas specifically highlighted by the Adoption Forum include the extension of appeals mechanisms, lay visitors to help the child particularly, provision of information to all concerned, placement orders and status conferred by adoption. I hope that the Minister will be able to comment on these points, which will be raised again as we take the Bill through the House.
As has been mentioned on a number of occasions, some adoption agencies are concerned about post-adoption support, a matter with which I concur absolutely because again this was a cause of great anxiety for the couple I have instanced. In their case they received regular visits from social workers for the first three months after placement. Then, because they were told that they were "coping so well", their support was withdrawn. They felt totally abandoned at a time when they believed that they needed more support and advice. In addition, they did not receive information from their local authority about help and about the nearest post-adoption group until 15 months after the placement took place. Obviously there is a need for improvement in this area.
The end of the story that I have woven throughout my contribution is a happy one. We were very lucky. I have a beautiful young grandson, now aged three, who has brought great joy to our lives. His special need, which is chronic asthma, is improving dramatically. I have watched him change from a shy, solemn little fellow into a warm-hearted, laughing and confident little boy.
The children in adoptions are the most important people in the process, but as we debate the Bill we must remember all those involved. The decisions we take as we debate the Bill will affect many, many lives directly. We must remember that children are not commodities to be bought or sold; neither are they statistics on a piece of paper. They are young human beings whose lives can be improved or marred by us.
With this new legislation many more children should be able to benefit from the love and security which adoption can bring. I was pleased to see the noble Baroness, Lady Young, back in the House—she is not in her place at the moment—and I agree with her particularly that the regulations which will accompany the Bill will need to be looked at carefully, as so often happens in our legislation. I hope that the Minister can reassure us on that point.
I, as have others, recognise the great emotion surrounding the parts of the Bill which cover cohabiting and single sex couples. I also recognise the importance of the issue. But we have to get it into perspective. I personally believe that cohabiting and single sex couples should be able to adopt. I hope that this point, which is already dividing us, will not be allowed to hijack the debate. There is so much else in the Bill to debate apart from those clauses. In so doing, we should draw the attention and understanding of the public to all the issues surrounding adoption.
My Lords, this is a valuable and important Bill which will profoundly affect the lives of a large number of vulnerable children most of whom have had a very difficult start in life. It is encouraging that page 1 of a 120-page Bill sets out clearly and unequivocally the principle that the child's welfare is the paramount consideration in all decisions relating to adoption. I warmly welcome that. It seems to me fundamental. The Department of Health summarised its aims as being,
"to put the needs of children at the heart of the adoption process and speed up the adoption system", and,
"to help provide permanent, secure, and loving families for children who cannot live with their birth families".
Those are admirable objectives.
Until 1975, adoption used to be handled by voluntary societies on which sat experienced and responsible citizens who often had had children of their own and were sensible and unprejudiced. Now it is in the hands of professionals in the social service departments of local governments who, it seems to me with all respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, have been less successful in handling it. I was impressed by what the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, said about the discouraging experience of potential adopters being grilled by social workers.
There is, I believe, a need to encourage the adoption of more children as young as possible. They have then a better chance of forming a close, loving relationship with the adoptive parents. It is clearly easier to find couples willing to adopt infants rather than older children who have had several years' experience of care. I am glad that my noble friend Lord Northbourne raised this point.
I am sure that the whole House will have welcomed the noble Baroness, Lady Young, back in her place today. In her powerful speech, she pointed out that the Government have gone back on their original proposals. Indeed, they have. An official spokesman for the Department of Health told the Special Standing Committee in another place last November that,
"the Government broadly agreed with the findings of the Adoption Law Review that 'married couples, given the publicly recognised commitment that they had given and their legal obligations to each other, were more likely to provide the child with the stability and security that it needed'".
"in the event of divorce, a married couple must be prepared to have plans for the future of their children scrutinised by the courts", whereas there was,
"no provision in law to protect the child's interests when unmarried couples separate".
Despite that, the Government accepted amendments to allow cohabiting and homosexual couples to adopt.
The Bill seeks to make the child's welfare paramount. If that is accepted, it cannot be right to accept those amendments. Cohabiting couples have declined to make a public commitment to stay together and have been shown by the Office for National Statistics to be far more likely than married couples so split up. That would be devastating to children they have been allowed to adopt. As CARE puts it,
"it is not in the interests of vulnerable children to be placed with couples who are not legally committed to each other".
The proposal that gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to adopt, included in the Bill, seems to me even more opposed to the principle that the child's welfare should be paramount. In a BBC interview some time ago, the right honourable Jack Straw said:
"I am not in favour of gay couples seeking to adopt children because I question whether that is the right start in life".
That is about as moderate a way of putting it as can be thought of. It would involve placing children in a situation where they have either no adoptive father or no adoptive mother. Homosexual relationships, I believe, tend too to be unstable and short-lived.
British Social Attitudes found in 1993 that 74 per cent of the public opposed adoption by lesbians and 84 per cent opposed adoption by male homosexuals. I think that many people away from Westminster will have found it extraordinary that the other place should favour same sex adoption. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that it may well increase the disillusion with politicians which appears to be growing in the country. I hope that the House will reject the amendments made to a Bill which is otherwise so valuable.
I have listened carefully to the speeches made in this debate from many different points of view but all made with sincerity and often with real feeling. I respect the views of those who take a different view from my own. I have learned a good deal today. But I hope that in the later stages of the Bill we can arrive at a consensus on how this crucial matter should be handled.
My Lords, first, I apologise for my somewhat odd voice and hope that it will last for the few brief minutes that I shall speak. I welcome the second introduction of the Adoption and Children Bill which had its origins in the Conservative Government's review which took place in 1992 and was introduced largely thanks to Caroline Spelman, a Conservative Member in another place. I wish to speak about potential adopters, to seek information from the Minister and perhaps make a point on the subject of age. I have sat through all but two of the speeches and have learnt something from each one of them. Your Lordships' House is a wonderful place for hearing a variety of opinions. The broad sweep of the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, gave me much food for thought, for which I thank her, in particular her clarion call for continuing support for adopting couples or single persons. I was also most moved by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Astor.
The Prime Minister's review stated that form F of the British Association of Adoption and Fostering is universally used as the principal means of assessment. It has the benefit of allowing consistent assessments but it is not always seen as the best way of assessing applicants. It is long, detailed and can be construed as intrusive. I am sure we all hope that it will be improved upon.
We are told that too many children are left in care, and how sad that is. I found most moving some of the stories we have heard today. But there seems little information available about how many applicants never make it to the adoptive panel stage. Nor could I find reliable information on the number of prospective adopters who have been turned down. Only figures relating to children who have been adopted and those who have not been are collected. Perhaps I am wrong.
The Government concede that the shortage of potential adopters stems often from the hurdles that they are required to jump. I should like to bring up the subject of age. I expect that we have all known couples who were turned down on the ground of age. I have been unable to find the official cut-off age. Perhaps the Minister will be able to enlighten me. In these times of demographic changes where we have to alter many of our assumptions perhaps it might be time to consider whether the bar is too low for the adoptive age for potential parents. My son is 38, my daughter-in-law is 36 and they are having their first baby in July. I take that simply as a case in point.
On Clauses 44 to 49, a number of amendments were carried in another place outlining new proposals to allow unmarried couples to adopt. During debate on Clause 47 in another place, the Minister indicated that the Cabinet Office was embarking on a review of partnership registration and that it would be premature to commit to any change in the law before that review was complete. She continued that the Adoption Law Review—the noble Lord, Lord Moran, referred to it—concluded when considering joint adoption that the law should remain limited to married couples on the ground that adoption by a married couple was more likely to provide the stability and security that the child needed because married couples have made a joint, publicly recognised legal commitment to each other; that marriage provides for mutual, legal and financial obligation; and, importantly, in the event of divorce, the couple must be prepared to have plans for the future of their children scrutinised by the courts. I quote:
"There is no provision in law to protect the child's interests when unmarried couples separate".
That is the heart of the matter for me. As we heard today, so many of these children are already vulnerable. To think that there would be no provision in law to protect the child's interests when an unmarried couple separate is too much for me to contemplate at this stage. So, until and if partnership registration becomes a reality, I believe that joint adoption must remain limited to legally married couples. Before anyone accuses me of anything else, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Alli, will remember that I spoke most supportively during the debate on the Private Member's Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, of some of the thoughts then expressed on the formation of new partnerships. I trust that I shall not be put into the box with which we have been threatened this afternoon if we do not immediately support same-sex relationships. I conclude on that note.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I welcome this long, overdue Bill. I should like to raise a concern about comments made on the issue of same-race placements, which has been vaguely mentioned during the debate. I shall also make another comment on the Bill as regards Clauses 44 to 49, which I totally support.
Over the years many thousands of looked after children have benefited from the generosity and commitment of adoptive families. I do not doubt their unstinting love and devotion. I recognise the Government's aim to increase the use of adoption as a means of offering permanence to children in care, but there are some downsides to this noble aim that I believe ought to be heard.
In the past decade I have been part of a banner-waving movement that looked into special failures to children who were adopted out of their own racial groups. It was not political correctness: it was a fact, backed by empirical data, that, even with the best care of well-meaning adoptive parents and however loving the environment, the children developed a crisis of identity in later years that prevented them from being contributing members of society.
At this time we must be aware that many children in need of adoptive homes are from black and mixed heritage communities. It is important that we are able to attract families that reflect and maintain the children's heritage and identity, or to give support to those willing to cross the cultural divide. That support must be a duty.
Families come in all shapes and sizes. It is important that social policy adjusts to these changes. It is not our task to moralise or pass comment on changing patterns of family life, but to ensure that we attract and recruit people to offer safe, loving and consistent care to a baby, a child, or a young adult in need.
When seeking to find the right environment for the child, we need to take account of the cultural heritage and identity links. I repeat: it is not political correctness. We need to do this to avoid confusion later on when the child, or young adult, rediscovers his roots. This often leads to the adopted person exploding, as described by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, when he is unsure of who he is.
As well as confusion, there is also the sense of being used as a mascot, which often happens in some families. Such children are treated as mascots. I shall quote just one line from a young child, who claimed that her adopted parents often introduced her by saying, "Meet our curly-headed, chocolate child". That may sound inoffensive to the speaker, but was definitely offensive to the child. When she wrote her book 30 years later, she said that that was the most hurtful thing that had ever happened to her. She said, "I wanted to curl up and die".
A well-rounded understanding of the issues to be faced is required so that it is less of a shock; so that denial is not employed by the children. I should like noble Lords to imagine for a moment the trauma experienced by a child if, for example, we were to lock an English child in a Chinese, an Indian, or a Greek home. There would be love, but there would also be an unawareness of the child's cultural needs. Locking a black child in an English home environment often results in children feeling lost in that society. Locking a Muslim or a Protestant child in a Catholic environment can have the same consequences.
We should not dismiss the latter as examples of political correctness. Children in such circumstances may later try to find their identity—often when they have gone to university or entered into further education. In the case of the black child, I should like to explain to the House that there is a model way of bringing up a black child in a white society. Without any doubt, they will face prejudice and racism at some time. I understand the logic of wanting to provide families instead of local authority care, but I should like to ask the Government to consider and make provision for the human costs in the lives of these children and, later on, as young people. The Government must invest in ways that will lead to positive role models for the children who find themselves adopted outside their race, so that they can be at ease with themselves.
I believe that such an investment needs a very comprehensive strategy to ensure that the young people placed outside their own racial roots will be future good citizens. I have met many families who have adopted children outside their own racial heritage. They are loving and wonderful parents, but there are parts that they cannot reach without help and support. I urge the Government to take note of that and to ensure that those parents are given the support that society can provide. Some children become very good performers, but suffer inwardly. Later on in adult life, they need years of counselling to be at ease with themselves.
I shall not bore your Lordships with the tales of suicides or drop-outs resulting from crises of identity. Instead, I should like the Government to understand that the successful parents did so at great costs to themselves. They, and others like them, will need support in real terms to make a success of what is a genuine need if we are to have well-balanced young citizens—and, subsequently, older citizens—in the future.
My second point relates to the "Suitability of adopters", as outlined in Clause 44. The issue was addressed in the other place on a free vote. I should like to add my support to the decisions taken in that place. The child to be adopted must have the right to a legal relationship with both those persons caring for him, even if those persons are not married. The child's right must be respected. We live in a society where a high percentage of couples—about 15 per cent—choose not to marry. Their choice not to marry should not be allowed to deny the adopted person the chance of a two-parent, caring home provided that all the other component facts are satisfied.
We should also remind ourselves that same-sex couples, whether or not they may wish to marry, are unable to do so given the present state of the law. But that does not mean that they cannot provide the kind of home in which a child can be brought up safely and with love and care. I firmly believe that more people would be encouraged to come forward if they believed that they could make a joint legal commitment to the child they seek to parent. That is why I feel that the Bill deserves the support of the whole House.
My Lords, I begin by apologising most profusely to the House for my absence during the early part of the debate. I had every intention of being here on time, but it proved impossible.
I particularly wanted to speak in this debate because of my involvement in children's issues and my work with NCH, the large children's organisation. I begin by mentioning two points. First, the Government should be congratulated on bringing forward this excellent Bill, as should colleagues in another place on the work that they have done to improve it. Secondly, I intend to leave to others who are more expert and experienced than I am the consideration of the generality of the Bill's purpose. Having listened to the contributions so far, I believe that that is probably a wise decision.
I intend to address my remarks and attention to Part 2 of the Bill and to amendments to the Children Act 1989, and to the children's safety issues which are addressed by the arrangements for contact between children and abusive parents. In many ways, I intend to pick up the baton of my honourable friend Margaret Moran, who championed this issue with some degree of success when the Bill was in Committee in another place. She has done much of the hard work and has made many of the arguments that will be deployed during the passage of the Bill through this House.
Perhaps I may also place on record my thanks to NCH, the NSPCC, Barnardo's, the Children's Society and the National Children's Bureau which, alongside Women's Aid, have provided briefing and support in relation to this issue.
Like those organisations, I support the principle of children maintaining contact with both parents following separation where this is in the children's best interests—and in the vast majority of cases it most certainly is. However, the existing legal system fails to protect children from abusers who are known to them. It is shocking to learn that in recent years 15 children in England and Wales have been killed as a result of the contact arrangements that were in place.
That means that the Children Act 1989 is not effective in ensuring child protection when the courts consider the granting of contact and residence orders in private proceedings. This has been exacerbated by recent case law that has distorted the welfare principle in the Children Act 1989 and, as a result, has placed many children at risk.
Urgent action is required to address the risk in which children are being placed again and again when courts grant unsupervised contact with parents who are known to have abused their children. The Adoption and Children Bill provides an opportunity to address this vital issue of child protection.
We know that the Government are sympathetic to this issue. Following lobbying from the children's coalition and Women's Aid during the passage of the Bill through the Commons and the championing by Margaret Moran and her colleagues, the Government introduced an amendment to extend the definition of "harm" to include any harm that a child may suffer due to the witnessing of the ill-treatment of another person.
The Government's amendment is very welcome, but the measures still do not require the courts to ensure that contact and residence arrangements will be safe for the child. The Government's amendment covers the trauma to a child as a result of witnessing ill-treatment, but not direct abuse to a child.
Let us examine the implications for these children of unsupervised contact with a parent who has an abusive history. A survey in 1999 of 130 parents who had been ordered by the courts to submit to contact visits found that 76 per cent of their children had been abused during the visits: 10 per cent of the children had been sexually abused; 15 per cent had been physically abused; 62 per cent had suffered emotional harm; 36 per cent had been neglected; and 26 per cent had been abducted or involved in an abduction attempt. the House of Lords ruled that a higher standard of proof than the simple balance of probabilities should be required in family law cases involving serious allegations. This ruling has been very damaging in cases where there is reason to believe that a child is too young to give evidence. For example, 45 per cent of children living in refuges are under the age of five. Two of the five Law Lords dissented from the ruling. One of them, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, expressed concern that this case could,
"establish the law in an unworkable form to the detriment of many children at risk", because child abuse, particularly sexual abuse, is notoriously difficult to prove in a court of law. My understanding is that the Lord Chancellor's Department has recognised the difficulty that the ruling has created.
, the Master of the Rolls ruled that contact is,
"almost always in the child's interest", and he dismissed concerns about domestic violence causing emotional harm, stating that the court should,
"not accord excessive weight to what appear likely to be short-term or transient problems".
This ruling remains highly influential, as contact is very rarely refused. the Court of Appeal ruled that in committal proceedings the welfare of the child is not the paramount consideration. The mother in this case was criticised for making "flimsy objections" and sentenced to six weeks in prison, even though the previous judge,
"accepted that the father had a history of violence, including a very serious assault on his former wife for which he was sent to prison".
Over recent years, the media have reported a number of cases where children have been murdered during unsupervised contact. These include the case of Daniel Philpott, aged seven, and his brother Jordan, aged three, who were killed by their father during a contact visit in August 1999. Unsupervised contact had been granted even though he was facing charges of threatening to kill his ex-partner and causing her actual bodily harm. Another such case is that of Imtiaz Begum, who was stabbed to death in a railway station when she was collecting her son after a contact visit in 1996. Her son was found strangled in her husband's car and her three daughters were found dead in their beds with their throats cut.
The irony is that this Government have introduced a range of measures to protect children from sex and violent offenders, including Schedule 1 offenders who have committed offences of neglect, physical injury or sexual harm to a child. These measures include the Sex Offenders Act 1997, which requires sex and violent offenders, including Schedule 1 offenders, to register their name and address with police, and provisions to ensure that unsuitable people, including those with offences against children, are unable to gain unsupervised contact with children through volunteering or employment, including the setting up of the Criminal Records Bureau.
During the course of learning about these problems, I was informed that a recent survey has revealed cases where orders for unsupervised contact had been granted to Schedule 1 offenders and to parents whose behaviour had resulted in children being placed on the child protection register. In five of these cases unsupervised contact was granted and in a further number contact was granted in contact centres where no supervision is available.
The problem is that in the majority of divorce cases both parents agree that there will be no objective scrutiny of the proposed arrangements for the children or any consultation about their wishes in the matter. Children who are being abused are particularly vulnerable in such situations, and the arrangements may mean that they will continue to have contact or residence with the parent who has abused them.
The views of children who do not want contact with a non-resident parent are frequently dismissed. As other speakers have said, the voice of the child needs to be heard in the private proceedings system to ensure that his or her interests are separately represented. The interests of children need to be represented independently in private proceedings to ensure that their welfare is safeguarded.
There have been attempts to improve legal protection for children in contact arrangements, including recent good practice guidelines for judges. Unfortunately, the judicial statistics for England and Wales suggest that there has been little change since the guidelines were introduced. A greater emphasis on child protection as a result of the guidelines might be expected to result in an increase in the number of cases in which courts refuse contact, but the number has decreased. Even according to the Government's own survey, the implementation of the guidelines has been patchy. We must conclude that guidelines are not enough on their own.
As I have already said, the Government have tabled amendments to the Bill to amend the Children Act 1989 by including witnessing domestic violence in the definition of harm and requiring the courts to decide whether allegations of violence are proved before granting contact. That move must be warmly welcomed. However, the amendments do not require the courts to ensure that contact or residence orders are safe for children. That is the heart of the problem.
We could learn from the experience of New Zealand, which was shocked in 1994 by the murder of three children by their violent father. The particularly shocking fact was that the father had been granted residence of the children even though his wife had obtained a protection order against him. A ministerial inquiry was set up and within five months it concluded that this tragedy could not—I repeat, could not—have been prevented under New Zealand's family law as it was then. The New Zealand Guardianship Act 1968 was subsequently amended to provide greater protection for children.
It is worth looking briefly at the key features of the New Zealand legislation. The central feature is a rebuttable presumption that residence and unsupervised contact will not be granted to a parent who is found to be violent. Clearly, the courts cannot be held accountable for the safety of the child in all circumstances, but by limiting the orders that may be granted in cases in which violence is proved, New Zealand has provided a clear direction for its family courts.
The presumption is not absolute. Orders for residence and unsupervised contact may be granted if the court is satisfied that it will be safe for the child. There will always be arguments about what is safe for a child, but by establishing a rebuttable presumption against residence or unsupervised contact being granted to parents who are found to be violent, New Zealand has laid down a practical approach for dealing with cases that are often regarded as intractable.
Another key feature of the New Zealand legislation is a mandatory risk assessment checklist that requires the court to consider the nature and seriousness of the violence, how recently and frequently it occurred, whether further violence is likely to occur, any physical or emotional harm suffered by the child as a result of the violence and whether the other parent considers that the child will be safe if contact or residence is granted. That mandatory checklist requires court professionals to take an objective approach to risk assessment and provides a clear framework for court welfare reports in cases involving allegations of violence.
The Lord Chancellor's Department has said that consultation will be required before any mandatory risk assessment checklist could be introduced here. It is crucial for the protection of children that we mention it now in the hope that a mandatory risk assessment checklist will be included in the regulations.
In conclusion, it is essential that the Children Act 1989 should protect children. For that reason, the Government should use the opportunity presented by this Bill to restore the simple balance of probabilities as the appropriate standard of proof in all Children Act cases. I look forward to supporting the Bill and to helping it in its passage through the House.
My Lords, I declare an interest in the Bill on two counts: first, because my husband and I adopted two children—one girl and one boy—who are now in their 30s; and, secondly, because I served on the board of visitors of a borstal and, when it changed its name, a young offender institution for more than 20 years and saw the results of many looked-after, in-care young people moving into the prison system.
Last weekend I telephoned our two adopted children, who are now adults, and asked them for their views on the Bill. Our daughter, now in her mid 30s, has friends who would like to adopt but are finding the process difficult. She told me that the system should be made easier and quicker. That point was well made by the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson of Market Rasen. I agree with her and with my daughter that the procedure should be made more human and personalised.
Our daughter was much more flexible in her views than was our son, who felt that people who wanted to take on the responsibility of adopting children should get married; otherwise there was not adequate commitment. On same-sex adoptive parents, he felt that the adopted child might have difficulties at school explaining to the other children that he or she had two mothers or two fathers. He said that children can be very cruel.
I give those diverse views as an example of how difficult it can be to get the balance acceptable. Children can be cruel. We know that from the sad number of suicides that have resulted from children having been bullied at school. When our boy was little he had sticking-out ears. I was able to have them corrected by surgery. For six months we had to bandage his head at night to keep his ears in the correct position. It was well worth it, as he grew up to be a very good looking young man, but during school he had the problem of dyslexia and could have been bullied had his ears not been corrected. It can often be the little things in life that cause unnecessary suffering.
I would like to ask the Minister about support services after adoption. Is it correct that as the Bill is presently drafted, the adopted child and his or her adopters will be entitled only to a full assessment of their support needs? It is known that these can be significant for children who have suffered early neglect and abuse and may not have had continuity of care. As has already been stressed, such children can present very challenging and demanding behaviour to their new family. They may have a range of unmet health and education needs. To carry out an assessment and then not give the necessary support is asking for trouble. There should be a clear duty to provide services if they are needed. Otherwise, these children may have to remain in care if the potential adopters do not think that they will get the problems corrected and receive the support to make it happen. That can only lead to frustration for those carrying out the assessments and the potential adopters. If that is the current provision in the Bill, I hope that your Lordships will rectify this potentially damaging weakness.
We do not live in a perfect world. Society has become very commercially minded. Commitments to long-term agreements are not what they used to be. Where I live in North Yorkshire we have just been told by our bishop that there is such a shortage of priests that we will lose our Mass on Sunday and the church will be closed in September, when the present priest retires. People are not committing themselves to holy orders. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why there is a shortage of adoptive parents. With so many challenges in modern society, perhaps many people are wary of committing themselves to the long-term adoption of children and all that it entails.
With so many marriage breakdowns, which is damaging to children, it may be that some non-married couples who really love and want children can give them the loving, caring home that they need. If couples adopt children, both partners should take the responsibility. There are so many accidents and illnesses, such as cancer, that adopted children need all the support they can get. It would be very damaging to have to be returned to care if one partner did not want the child or children in the event of the other partner's serious illness or death.
In my work with the inmates of the young offender institution, I became very aware of the very high percentage of young people coming there from care. Many of them were very institutionalised. They were used to a lack of stability and continuity. They felt rejected and not wanted. This was evident in their attitude and behaviour. Many of them were immature and irresponsible, never having had to take responsibility in a home they could call their own. One could see the damage that had been done. I agree that there is a desperate need for homes that will take an interest and love these children before they take to a life of crime.
Many people across the country were shocked and dismayed at how Victoria Climbie was let down by those with statutory responsibility who had been alerted to her terrible situation. It is both inexplicable and inexcusable that two trained people failed to look into her case—a vulnerable girl a long way from home—because they were frightened of getting scabies. I just hope that people in authority will make the right decisions for children who need adoptive parents. The children's interests should be paramount. There is risk in life, but there can be safeguards. I hope that these will be respected. They were not in Victoria Climbie's case or in the case of many other children in care who have been let down.
Clause 85 concerns overseas adoption. I hope that overseas adoption will be made as easy as possible where necessary. I remember meeting the most lovely oriental girl at a horse show in Yorkshire. She was riding wearing a black jacket and looking very smart. An Army officer had been out in a country, I think Vietnam, when he noticed some pigs eating something. He went over to investigate and found to his horror that they were eating baby girls. He snatched up a baby, saving her life, and later adopted her. She was the lovely girl I met, who was a very popular member of the pony club.
Adoption can help some of the most vulnerable children at home and around the world and can give them the chance of a better life. I wish the Bill well as long as it can give children the help, protection and support that many of the vulnerable and disabled ones will need.
My Lords, there can be no more important an occasion for this House than when it considers legislation affecting children. This Bill on adoption is just such legislation. It is also not surprising that it is 25 years since we last considered major legislation affecting children. The care of children and the way in which we permit adoption are not matters that should be changed annually. When we make such law, it should deal with the needs of society and reflect society's sentiment in the age in which that law is passed.
I welcome this Bill. It is a very important piece of social legislation with which we must grapple with the greatest of care. I have three points of emphasis to make about it and one point of opposition. The first point of emphasis, echoing many of my noble friends and noble Lords opposite, deals with support for adoptive parents. Can there be any greater act of love and commitment than that parents, or a single parent, should adopt a child, to bring that child up as a member of that family and as a useful member of society? I can think of none. That deserves a commitment back by society, to give support up to adoption and thereafter as a token of our gratitude for that which they have done for that child and the community in which they live. That is my first point of emphasis. The act of adoption is not the end of that child's adoptive life; it is the beginning of it.
The second point of emphasis deals with intercountry adoption. I entirely endorse the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, on the value of adoption by parents in this country of children from deprived countries and terrible circumstances. However, such adoption must be legal and voluntary. Those of us connected with children's work in south-east Asia and central America are acutely aware of the trade in adopted children, where an allegedly abandoned baby is in fact the product of straightforward purchase and sometimes even of violent theft in order to feed the adoption market in the US, elsewhere in America and in Europe.
Therefore, my second point of emphasis to my noble friend the Minister is, first, that our embassies, when this Bill become law, should be sent information to be passed to the authorities of the relevant countries explaining our law, how we apply it and how it affects intercountry adoption. Secondly, there should be in the Department of Health a permanent secretariat, no matter how modest in numbers, to which any other country can have access when dealing with intercountry adoption problems.
Although the third point of emphasis is a legal one, I think that it is absolutely vital in the proper application of this legislation. The suitability of adopters—in Chapter 1, Chapter 2 and right to the end of the Bill—is the key question. I am concerned that we shall debate this Bill, especially Clause 44, without some knowledge of the principles which the regulations will embrace telling adoption agencies and courts how the suitability of adopters is to be determined. Currently, Clause 44(1) simply makes provision for regulations. Clause 44(2) particularly refers as one of the main points to the need for stability and permanence in the adopters' relationship, but nothing more.
The Children Act gave rise to a flood of litigation about what was meant by the welfare of the child being the paramount concern. There are so many factors to be taken into account. Judges and adoption agencies determining those questions are given discretion. It would be most unfortunate if in our enthusiasm to pass this Bill we did not pay particular attention to the principles upon which adoption agencies and courts will act in deciding when adopters are suitable. I cannot emphasise too much that the cost to the child and to adopters of litigation without clarity is very great. I invite my noble friend the Minister, if he is able, in due course, perhaps in Committee, to give us the highlights, the main points, of regulations and to confirm, as I anticipate will be the intention, that they will be the subject of affirmative resolution.
I come to my point of opposition. I was greatly moved by the speech of my noble friend Lady Gibson. Her acutely felt, emotionally expressed human experience provides eloquent evidence of the importance of this legislation. I know from old that she and my noble friend Lord Alli, who made an equally moving speech, will respect different views. We are allowed a free vote on the Bill by our Whips because it is a matter of conscience. I am a Christian. If I disagree, I hope that that does not make me an intolerant Christian. If I think that it is too soon, if ever, to allow gay couples to adopt, I hope that my carefully considered and honestly held views will be respected in the same measure as I respect a contrary view, even if I disagree with it.
Why do I oppose adoption by couples of the same sex? The Bill tells us at the beginning—thus far I am not sure that it has been mentioned by any speaker, certainly not with any degree of emphasis—in Clause 1(2) that the paramount consideration for adoption,
"must be the child's welfare"— here I come to the emphasis—
"throughout his life".
It is not a case of considering the child's welfare at the moment of escape from a care home or an institution but for the rest of that child's life.
I ask the following questions. What is the evidence, not simply from this country but from any other, that a child brought up by a same sex couple will not be adversely affected or, alternatively, will be beneficially affected? I know of no such evidence. I have carefully read the paper by Dr Golombok. It is only a year or two old. The study cohort was very small and no responsible commentator could regard it as a definitive base for saying that there is no effect. We simply do not know. What are the circumstances in which the adverse effect may be felt? My noble friend Lady Masham reminded us of the cruelty of children to each other. Do we know what the reaction of other children will be when it becomes known that a child has been adopted by a same sex couple? We simply do not know. What will be the effect on them in their adult life? We do not know.
I respect and have voted in this House for the rights of homosexuals, but I refuse to vote for a principle which affects children on the basis of any sentiment about those rights. A child's needs are paramount. I echo the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, and my question is rhetorical—no doubt in Committee we shall return to it in detail—is this a time when we can afford to commit children into adoption by way of experiment—I use that word carefully—in a field of which we know nothing? I simply cannot accept that there is evidence to justify such a major step in social thinking and adoption management by our society. The child who would be the subject of such adoption is a child of whom the authorities have to take into account, in terms of the adoption, cultural, linguistic and racial characteristics. My rhetorical question is: how is that to be determined in relation to same sex parents?
I come to my last question. Let us not forget that the Bill preserves the right of the natural parent to be heard. An adoption order can be made only where that parent consents or—I use the words of the Bill—a judge in deciding the adoption order is satisfied that the parent's consent can be dispensed with. Upon what principle is that decision to be made if the natural parent says, "Adoption, yes; same sex couple, no"? I do not know what the principle is; a Solomon would find it difficult. It certainly demands widespread public debate longer than the six or 12 months we have had during the currency of this Bill.
I have expressed my concerns and I have now expressed opposition. I fully realise that in the emotion of a debate like this a word such as "hijacking" in relation to the debate can spill off the tongue perhaps too readily. The matter I am discussing forms one part of a major Bill. My opposition is restricted to that one part. It is a matter of great public concern. The Bill must command public support. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, told us a moment ago that the vast majority of people in our society are against adoption by same sex couples. Where is the evidence that this Bill will meet the feelings of the community that we represent? The enthusiasm and the depth of feeling with which we reassure each other about the rightness of our views is not the test; the test is: are we making law that represents the views, the sentiment and the sense of right and wrong which society presently holds? I am against the part of the Bill that I have mentioned, but even if my mind was open, it is too soon and it is inappropriate to introduce it. It should await another time, if ever.
Noble Lords have been most patient, but in dealing with the matters that I favour and that I oppose I have merely emphasised, as we all feel at present, that this is a vitally important Bill. It should leave this House with the confident support of all of us that in future the needs of adopted children should be met.
My Lords, it is a privilege to wind up from these Benches not only because of the superb contribution made by my noble friend Lady Barker—it means that I can be briefer in winding up—but also because this is a very important subject. The debate has fully reflected that. Speeches from all sides of the House were based on a wealth of professional and personal experience. There was much commonality of view, particularly with regard to post-adoption support.
I pay tribute to the enormous number of organisations that have, I am sure, briefed all of us. I could spend half of my speech referring to those organisations. They know who they are. They form a remarkable coalition that acts together constructively. That should bear fruit in Grand Committee.
Strangely enough for one on these Benches, I also pay tribute to the Government. We have had the benefit of a Special Standing Committee in another place and Ministers listened carefully to what was said then. I refer in particular to the amendments that were tabled on Report. The Government are grasping the issues. We strongly support the 40 per cent increase in the Government's target for adoption. Looking back, the Children (Leaving Care) Act was a major landmark. The Government have been grappling with the issues for some time.
The fact that the Government have listened and the fact that so many amendments were tabled in another place mean that we have much to digest in Grand Committee. That is ironic because if the Bill were nicely cut and dried and we knew what Ministers' responses would be, we should all have an easy time and take up set positions. I do not believe that that will be the case in Grand Committee.
Noble Lords spoke eloquently of the disadvantages of those in care. Many of those young people escaped from abuse, were adopted but still have major problems. Those who were in care are four times more likely to be unemployed, as several noble Lords have pointed out, including the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. They are 60 times more likely to be homeless and one-quarter of the adult population in prison are "ex-care". What kind of dreadful cycle have we created in our care system? We must recognise that cycle; that is why the Bill and the future of adoption are so important. On average, 58,000 children at any one time are in care, including foster care.
I turn to the mismatch on the register. The fact that there are so many prospective adopters and prospective adoptees demonstrates that the needs of neither side are currently being met.
I turn to two issues outside the strict scope of the wording of the Bill but of crucial importance—several noble Lords have alluded to them. The first involves the question of the culture of adopting agencies, particularly local authorities, and their attitude towards prospective adopting parents. Like the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, I found the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, extremely moving. That shows that at the very least there is a strong feeling that the system is not delivering or welcoming to prospective parents and places barriers before them. However, I recognise the extent of the feeling of the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, about the fact that we should not pick on social workers.
The second issue that is strictly outside the terms of the Bill—I daresay that we shall return to it—involves the question of resources. Many noble Lords, including, interestingly, Back-Bench Labour Peers, mentioned resources. That is of great importance. Was the £66 million promised back in 2000 new funding and will it be devoted to this Bill or was it subsumed within the generality of the Quality Protects programme? We need assurances on resources from the Minister, in particular in relation to post-adoption support. We also need assurances on the resources that will be available for CAFCASS. That was raised in another place at Third Reading.
We on these Benches welcome many aspects of the Bill, as my noble friend Lady Barker made plain. I refer in particular to the recognition of the great need for adopting couples to come forward and for priority to be given in that regard. We need clear principles on the child's welfare being paramount. It should override everything else where necessary. In this regard, I also refer to the right to assessment for post-adoption support; the independent review mechanism when prospective adoptees have not been selected for adoption; the issue of a statutory national register for adoption; the closing of inter-country adoption loopholes; the creation of new offences and higher penalties; the new special guardianship status order; and, finally, the provisions relating to step parents. We on these Benches greatly welcome those many new initiatives.
However, as almost every noble Lord who has spoken in this debate made clear, there are many issues that need to be addressed in Grand Committee. I refer to Clause 60 and its retrospectivity. Birth parents should be able to make contact via an intermediary with their children. A limited number of pre-1980 birth parents are involved. That was raised in another place but the Government did not give way. I very much hope that on further consideration they will appreciate that the genetic inheritance of the child is of great importance, not just for emotional reasons in terms of one's own group but also in relation to basic matters such as health. Nowadays, assessments of genetic predisposition in a number of health matters are of great importance. I do not doubt that we shall return to that matter.
Several noble Lords discussed inter-country adoption and whether we have gone far enough in that regard. I believe that the balance of opinion among noble Lords who have spoken in this debate is that we need an agency—whether within the Department of Health, as the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, suggested, or externally—by which prospective adopters and adoptees can be linked with regard to inter-country adoption.
Probably the most important issue raised by noble Lords involved the question of mandatory post-adoption support. Quite simply, the Government should fulfil the promise that they set out in the White Paper; they have not done so. The debate in another place did not make it clear whether there is an absolute right to post-adoption support, whatever language Ministers may have used to decorate the argument. On any plain reading of the Bill, that is still not the case although it is vital. Although I disagreed with a great deal of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, his description of the exact reasons why post-adoption support is needed was a tour de force.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, described children's background, including early traumatic experience, abuse and neglect. That illustrated the reasons why post-adoption support is so important, as did the personal experience of the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson.
I refer also to history before placement. Such an arrangement should be available before adoption. We shall no doubt come back to that in due course. There is also the issue of independent review. The appeal system is very limited. It covers only the process of determining suitability for adoption and disclosure of protected information by adoption agencies. Yet, at Second Reading in the other place, the Government gave a pledge on that precise subject. Therefore, the Government are still required to fulfil two pledges, whatever else may be wrong with the rest of the Bill. It is absolutely right that there should be a review system of other aspects of adoption, such as the matching of adopters and adoptees, care plans, and excessive movement between foster parents and so on. A whole range of areas would justify that.
I move on to the issue of advocacy, which was raised by a number of noble Lords. Currently only one-third of local authorities have a proper advocacy service. As we heard today, these children need an advocacy service if their voice is to be heard in a proper fashion.
I shall not labour issues such as the question of adoption without consent when parents' wishes are overridden by the paramountcy rule. I have no doubt that we shall wish to explore that area further, together with the issue of advanced consent to placement orders. Without wishing to delay the process of adoption, there is an argument for court overview at each stage.
There is also the question of private foster carers and the need for a full registration regime under the Bill. We on these Benches believe that that is absolutely vital, and we shall want to see amendments made to the Bill in that respect.
Finally, I turn to an aspect of the Bill which is perhaps the most contentious but absolutely not the most important. I would not use a censorious term such as "hijacking", which, the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, suggested, those with a different view might place into their mouths. But it is certainly important to get into proportion the issue of unmarried and same-sex couples. A provision relating to that subject was inserted into the Bill on Report in the other place.
I have no doubt that we shall debate that matter to some degree in Grand Committee, and we shall certainly do so on Report when a vote will be taken. But I want to assure your Lordships that on these Benches, whether we have a free vote or not, there will be overwhelming support for the existing terms of the Bill. We feel strongly that it is a matter of eligibility. The ability of people to put themselves forward as prospective adopting couples should be the entitlement of same-sex couples, unmarried couples and married couples. That is the approach we shall take.
Of course, there may be unsuitable married couples, unsuitable unmarried couples and unsuitable gay couples. But the process of setting eligibility should be the same. As the noble Lord, Lord Alli, pointed out, it is surely preferable that children are adopted into a stable, loving relationship, if that is assessed to be the case, rather than remain in care with all the consequences that many noble Lords have mentioned today.
The needs of the child must, of course, be paramount, as must his lifelong needs. But I do not see how that conflicts with the ability of same-sex and married couples to be eligible as adopters. I believe that we must recognise realities. Forty per cent of children in the UK are now born out of wedlock. The issue of child maintenance is something of a red herring. I believe that the Child Support Agency would still have a role in relation to unmarried couples and so on. I am sure that we shall return to that matter at far greater length in future when the arguments will be carefully analysed.
I do not believe, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester said, that we are going for any old relationship. I believe that that devalues the intent behind Clause 44 and it is absolutely not what was intended. Therefore, I know which of the right reverend Prelates I support in relation to this particular argument.
As has been pointed out, the Bill provides a once-in-a-generation chance to improve our adoption system. Let us ensure that we take the fullest opportunity to do so. Let us also remind ourselves that the Bill is about opportunity. It is about opportunity for children now and in the future, and we want the very best for them.
My Lords, on behalf of the Opposition it is a pleasure for me to begin by welcoming the arrival of the Bill in your Lordships' House. I thank the Minister for introducing it with his customary clarity and for helpfully setting its main provisions in their broader policy context.
As the Minister indicated, this is a Bill of great importance for the welfare of children. The need for reform of the adoption laws has long been recognised. A draft Bill prepared in 1996 under the previous Conservative government provided the foundation for much of the work done by the current Government. That work has, in turn, been informed by the debates in another place on the earlier Adoption and Children Bill, introduced in the last Parliament. What we have before us is undoubtedly, in relation to its key principles, a good Bill.
That is not to say, of course, that there will not be matters of detail which we shall wish to pursue in Committee. There are a number of those and I shall come to them. Some of them are of considerable significance. But all Members of the House will, I feel sure, wish to give the Bill as a whole a fair wind.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that this has been a debate of remarkable quality. We have heard today from all who have spoken why the Bill is of such importance. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, spoke so well about the need for every child to have a happy and loving family as the foundation for his or her well-being in adulthood. The stability and permanence offered by family life, and the example set by good and loving parents, provide the best possible means for a child to develop and grow as an emotionally balanced individual. By contrast, the lack of family love and the absence of stability lead to consequences that are all too evident in children who are brought up in the care system.
The care system is a necessary expedient. It is there to protect children from suffering unacceptable harm. It is not, and never has been, something to be desired for itself. We all know why that is. The care system, in all too many instances, does not provide love, permanence or stability. There are many examples of very successful fostering but unfortunately far more examples of less happy experiences in care, where children are subject to a succession of foster placements or are kept in residential care for many years.
The results are apparent in the shameful number of children in care who fail to achieve any qualification at school. They are apparent in the statistics for the unemployed, for youth offenders and for rough sleepers. Over many years, adoption has proved itself as a means of averting those ills by giving damaged and vulnerable children a new chance in life. It is absolutely right that we should seek to offer the opportunity of adoption to as many children as need it.
As the Minister said, the adoption system suffers from several serious shortcomings. It is too slow; it is cumbersome; and it is frequently unfair. With some children, the process of adoption can take months and sometimes years. There is a clear disparity between some local authorities and others in terms of their commitment to adoption, as reflected in the number of children being adopted. This is not only a management issue. In some authorities a culture of reluctance seems to be endemic. There is also, as so many noble Lords have pointed out, a culture of political correctness, which, for completely spurious reasons, excludes many people who might otherwise have proved suitable as adopters. That culture needs to be broken. Legislation alone cannot do that, but in conjunction with other measures, such as national standards, it can be a powerful driver for change.
There is of course one overriding principle that the Bill espouses, which is to put the welfare of the child at the centre of all decision-making relating to adoption. In common with all other noble Lords who have spoken, I welcome that explicit emphasis, as I do the provision in Clause 1, which creates a presumption against delay. I totally support the creation of the national adoption register. I also unreservedly welcome the provisions in the Bill which provide for support for adoptive families.
Caring for an adopted child can be far from easy, as we have heard graphically today. Children with behavioural difficulties or special needs can test the ability of even the most committed adults to cope properly. The availability of support for those who are struggling can make the difference between success and failure. As has been said by so many noble Lords, it is a serious disappointment that the Bill does not create a duty for local authorities to provide such support where it is needed. All that they are required to do under the Bill is to assess the need and, in a generalised way, to make relevant support arrangements. That seems to me to be unsatisfactory, for unless local authorities have a duty to provide support services and are resourced accordingly, many simply will not provide them. That is certainly one of the areas to which we shall wish to devote time in Grand Committee.
The Bill includes provision for appeals for prospective adopters who are turned down. That, too, is welcome. However, I am unhappy that appeals will not be possible for anything else; for example, for approved adopters who are denied a match with the child that they want to adopt; for prospective intercountry adopters who are made to wait years before a home study or for adoptive families who are turned down in their application for post-adoption support. I shall argue in Committee that the absence of a specialist arbitration system of all areas of adoption and fostering is short-sighted because it opens the way to lengthy disputes and expensive court cases. It is also fundamentally misguided because unless there is respect for those people willing to take on children who are in care, and unless the authorities are seen to listen to those people, we shall not be able to restore public confidence in the care system. Transparency and fairness are necessary pre-requisites for cultural change.
A matter of major contention in another place and, indeed, today, was the issue of whether unmarried couples should be able to become adoptive parents. As we have heard, the original terms of the Bill were that only a married couple or a single person could apply for an adoption order. However, on Report, amendments were accepted by the Government that would allow unmarried and same-sex couples to adopt jointly. We shall want to revisit that decision in Committee, not as part of some moral crusade in favour of marriage or against other forms of relationship, but because we believe on the evidence available that couples who are married provide the best chance of permanence and stability for adopted children. If the interests of the child are to be paramount, surely that must be an area which we examine with detachment and without moral bias.
We shall also wish to re-examine the provisions in the Bill which relate to intercountry adoption. There is little in the Bill to encourage prospective intercountry adopters in the belief that the Government are wholly on their side. The UK has still not ratified the Hague convention. People who want to adopt from abroad will have to pay for their own home studies; that is always assuming that they can persuade their local authority to provide one. The fees for such home studies can be exorbitant. Like the noble Lords, Lord Brennan and Lord Clement-Jones, my own view is that there should be a specialist intercountry adoption agency which would serve to protect both children and prospective adopters. At present, and as the Bill stands, adopters have to fight their way through the UK system and the system in the country of their choice if they are to stand any chance of being successful. It is time that our own system respected the choice made by intercountry adopters as both valid and valuable, which means removing unnecessary barriers to adopting from abroad.
The Minister spoke of the responsibility which society has to enhance the life chances of vulnerable children. I know that we would all endorse that sentiment. But in doing so there is perhaps one note of caution that I would wish to sound. Ministers have referred to the need to increase the numbers of children being adopted from care and have spoken of achieving a 40 per cent increase in those numbers by 2005 compared to the levels achieved in 1999-2000. The thought that underlies that target is entirely admirable. However, with targets like that there is a danger. What happens when they are not met? In particular, what happens when a local authority realises towards a year end that it has fallen behind on a target that central government says it has to reach? There may well be a temptation to cut corners or to fast-track adoptions that may be less appropriate without implementing all the necessary controls on quality. That, if it happened, would be deeply unfortunate and must be avoided at all costs.
This is a big Bill. It contains a multitude of complex provisions which are of the first importance for parents and children and for the adoption system as a whole. No fewer than 43 clauses and two schedules were left completely undebated in another place. That is nearly one-third of the entire Bill. We shall wish to rectify those omissions and digest those clauses as we take forward our debates through your Lordships' House. The Bill before us—if one excludes the Bill which lapsed before the general election—is the first comprehensive piece of adoption legislation to be presented to Parliament for over a quarter of a century. This is, therefore, a golden opportunity which we must seize constructively, and seize with enthusiasm.
My Lords, in winding up this debate I begin by acknowledging the significant, wide-ranging in character and high quality contributions which have been made. It is possible to conclude that there is a clear consensus on many of the issues debated today: on the importance of adoption; on the emphasis which needs to be placed on the needs of the child; and on the need to deal with delays and the issues raised by the my noble friend Lady Gould, but not at the expense of thoroughness. I share that point with the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, and, indeed, with the noble Earl, Lord Howe, when he raised the issue of the impact of targets on the performance of local authorities.
There is consensus on the need to underpin support for adoptive families and on the need for an independent and impartial review mechanism for prospective adopters who feel that they are being turned down unfairly. There is consensus and a recognition that the current legislation has long been outmoded, out of date and unsuitable for the kind of adoption service we need today.
The noble Earl, Lord Howe, pointed to a number of clauses which he felt did not receive effective scrutiny in the other place. However, perhaps I may say that the process of pre-legislative scrutiny through the Special Standing Committee enabled the other place to have considered debates on many of the important issues raised in the Bill. I am convinced that the Bill has been significantly improved because of the attention that it has already received.
My noble friend Lady Gould, the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, and, in particular, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, have focused on the core reason why it is so important to get adoption procedures right. That is striking when one looks at the statistics on the outcomes for children who are looked after in our care system. The facts that between 14 per cent and 25 per cent of young women leaving care are either pregnant or have a child, that those who have been looked after are 60 times more likely to be homeless than young people in the general population and that 39 per cent of male prisoners under 21 have been looked after are surely the stark background to the need to ensure that we get these adoption procedures right. That is why the Bill is so critically important.
A number of noble Lords, when discussing the issue of unmarried couples, made the point that we must not be distracted from the core aims of the Bill by exercising ourselves overmuch in relation to that issue. Of course I understand that sentiment. But we must recognise and acknowledge that for many noble Lords the issue of unmarried couples is a matter of strict conscience. I am sure that we shall have a lengthy debate on that.
Noble Lords will know from my introductory remarks that it was a free vote in the other place on Back-Bench amendments to allow unmarried couples that caused the Bill to be in the position that it is. The Government's objective is to increase the number of vulnerable children, through adoption, who have an opportunity to grow up as part of a loving, stable and permanent family.
There is no doubt that enabling unmarried couples to apply to adopt jointly will widen the pool of prospective adoptive parents. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford spoke of the inhibition of many unmarried couples in coming forward to adopt under the current adoption rules and legislation.
I want to make this point very clear: no one has a right to adopt. It is for adoption agencies and the courts to decide who is suitable. The best interests of the child should always come first in reaching such a decision. Any couple in order to become adoptive parents need to prove not only that they can provide a loving and stable family environment for a child but that their relationship is sound and likely to be lasting.
At the moment only married couples may adopt children jointly. Single people may adopt, regardless of sexual orientation. Where an unmarried couple, whether the same or opposite sex, applies to adopt, they are assessed as a couple, but only one may adopt the child. Arguably, that denies the child the permanence and security of having two parents. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, put that issue well.
So far as concerns the issue of adoption by gay and lesbian couples, I re-emphasise that adoption legislation already allows lesbian women and gay men to adopt as single people. If they are living as part of a couple, they will be assessed now as a couple. Where the applicants are a couple, the assessment process includes rigorous scrutiny of the stability of their relationship and their suitability to bring up children. If this legislation goes through as currently drafted, ultimately it will be up to the court to decide whether or not to make the adoption order.
Your Lordships, I am sure, will respect other noble Lords' views when approaching the matter. I have no doubt that we can have a dispassionate debate on the issue. Certainly, from the Government's point of view, there will be a free vote in your Lordships' House.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, whom we were all delighted to see in her place earlier this afternoon, suggested that the Government had changed their views on the issue. I reiterate that at the Second Reading of the Bill in the other place the Secretary of State said that he believed that there should be a debate on the issue of adoption by unmarried couples. The Bill was referred to a Special Standing Committee, which allowed the House to hear evidence from a wide range of experts on that and many other issues. The vast majority of organisations and lobby groups in the adoption field support a change to enable unmarried couples to apply to adopt jointly. Major children's organisations, including the NSPCC and Barnardo's, also support the change.
Noble Lords have raised the question of and strength of marriage. They will know that the Government support the concept of marriage, both politically and financially. They recognise that marriage is the surest foundation for raising children and that it remains the choice of the majority of people in the country. But they also recognise that not all children are born to parents who are married. We must face up to the changing nature of this country and make our dispositions accordingly.
The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, spoke about a statistic—and this matter was reiterated by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester—concerning cohabiting couples being more likely than married couples to split. But my point is that extending eligibility to adopt jointly to unmarried couples does not automatically enable such couples to adopt because no one has a right to adopt. The rigorous adoption assessment process operated by adoption agencies is there to sift through those couples and individuals who come forward to adopt. Anyone who is unable to make a long-term commitment to a child and to provide a stable and loving home will not be approved to adopt. The child's welfare is always to the fore. I do not accept the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord Astor.
My noble friend Lord Brennan asked about the evidence in relation to children adopted by gay and lesbian parents. I am happy to share with him the evidence that I have. I understand that there have been several studies of the personal and social development of children with lesbian and gay parents that suggest that there is no evidence that their development is compromised in any significant respect relative to that of children of heterosexual parents in otherwise comparable circumstances. I shall be happy to write to my noble friend to follow up on that answer.
Of course, at the end of the day, the child's interest is paramount. That is the critical importance of the paramountcy test in Clause 1. That is why I also respect the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, and my noble friend Lady Massey, who referred to the place of the child and the need to take the child's wishes and feelings fully into account. I contend that the Bill underpins that basic philosophy.
Under Clause 1(4)(a), courts and adoption agencies will be under a positive obligation to ascertain the child's wishes and feelings about all decisions relating to adoption and to take them into account, considering the child's age and understanding. The precise procedures for adoption agencies will be set out in regulations and guidance and, for the courts, in court rules and guidance. During 2003-04, we shall consult on the details of those regulations, guidance and court rules underpinning implementation of the Bill—in 2004, I can tell my noble friend Lady David.
Of course I welcome the intervention of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on the issue of advocacy, on which I shall not say that he has ploughed a lonely furrow in your Lordships' House, because he has had a great deal of support. I have no doubt that we shall return to discuss the matter. The Government are well aware that children and young people who are being looked after can be especially vulnerable when they want to raise problems or concerns. We want to strengthen the safeguards surrounding looked-after and other vulnerable children when they are making a complaint under Section 26 of the Children Act 1989. We are consulting on the best way to proceed with that. Consultation currently under way is considering the funding of services; the definition of different professionals who provide advocacy; the introduction of national standards; and training of advocates, which are all important issues.
My noble friend Lady Goudie, the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, and the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, all raised the question of what I think that they described as political correctness issues or, as my noble friend Lady Howells of St Davids suggested, sensitivity to racial background. That is an important matter on which it is important that we achieve the right balance not only in the Bill but in practice in the field.
Clause 1(5) makes it clear that a child's religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background must be taken into consideration by the adoption agency in placing a child for adoption. My noble friend Lady Howells made some important arguments as to why that should be so. Standard A9 of the National Adoption Standards states:
"every effort will be made to recruit adopters from a diverse range of backgrounds, so that children can be found a family within the target timescales that best meets needs their needs and in particular which reflects their ethnic origin, cultural background and religious heritage".
But we are trying to get the balance right. The standards make it clear that children cannot be left waiting indefinitely for a "perfect" family. Clause 1(3) backs that up by placing courts and adoption agencies under a duty to bear in mind that delay in coming to any decision is in general likely to prejudice the child's welfare.
I know that several noble Lords have spoken to suggestions that adoption agencies operate blanket bans, such as, "You can't adopt if you are too fat, or you smoke", or that there is an age restriction. I was interested in the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, on that. As my youngest child was born when I was 46, I do not have much sympathy with age bans. Of course, there is no statutory cut-off age limit at all. The figures for 1999 show that the average age of adoptive couples was 37 years 8 months and the average age of single adopters was 40 years 4 months. The maximum age in that sample was 59 years 1 month.
The point is that the PIU report for the Cabinet Office found no evidence of the existence of blanket bans, although there is certainly a perception that they exist. That may be partly due to misunderstanding of agency practice. For example, when placing a very young baby, agencies must consider the age of the applicants, who must be able to cope with the child as it grows up. Equally, there is no question but that children are the losers if arbitrary assessment criteria are used to select adopters. As the Bill makes clear, the welfare of the child should be the paramount consideration, and each case should be judged on its merits. The needs of children must be considered, without the application of any blanket criteria.
Social workers must have the skill and professionalism to be able to make sure that the matter is handled professionally and effectively. My noble friend Lady Goudie and the noble Lord, Lord Moran, focused on the issue of the professionalism and performance of social workers. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, that, whatever the faults of social workers and whatever problems there are with the performance of some social services departments, we must be careful not to make social workers everyone's whipping-boys. They have a difficult job to do, and our emphasis must be on supporting them in doing that job and helping them to improve their performance. I have great faith in the ability of the General Social Care Council to raise standards over the next few years. Also, importantly, it will raise public confidence in what social workers do.
As my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton said, training is important. I cannot tell her how the £41 million will be spent with regard to adoption services, but I believe that it will be an important part of the process of raising professional social work performance in the adoption services.
I know that there is some concern that the Bill places no statutory duty on local authorities to provide services to individuals. The new duty in Clause 3, which ensures that all local social services authorities make and participate in arrangements to provide adoption support services, is an important indication of our intent. Clause 4 gives people affected by adoption a new right to request and receive an assessment of their needs for adoption support services from the local authority. Noble Lords must surely agree that individual local authorities are best placed to decide, on the basis of need and the availability of services locally, whether to provide adoption support and, if so, which services. That is the point of having local authorities in a broad national framework. That is the principle on which most public services, including other social services, are provided.
My Lords, I can never understand Liberal Democrat policy on such matters. Time after time, they accuse me of over-centralising and seeking to dictate to local government, but, time after time, the noble Lord wishes to dictate to local government exactly what it should do.
We have got the balance right. There is a strong framework for ensuring, first, that the local authority has made arrangements to provide adoption support services. It must carry out the assessment, and it is right that it should be given the discretion to decide how and to what extent it will provide services in the light of that assessment. The noble Lord is saying, in effect, that adoption support services should have priority over almost every other service provided by a local authority social services department. I accept that we must get the balance right, and I accept that we must ensure that effective support services are available. We want to give couples and single people who are adopting young people as much support as we can, and we have got the balance right.
My Lords, I would never accuse the noble Baroness of being a Liberal Democrat. Indeed, I am looking forward to the time when she supports me in the Lobby on a health Bill.
If we were to leave the matter completely at the discretion of local authorities, I would understand the noble Baroness's concern. But the Bill contains the requirement to ensure that services are available. The performance assessment framework for local authorities, the inspections by the social services inspectorate—all those mechanisms—will pick up such issues of concern. Some discretion must be left to local authorities. But I accept that we shall probably have a debate on the matter in Committee and later on in the Bill.
My noble friend Lady Gibson spoke most movingly about the human aspects of potential adoptive parents. It is my hope that, notwithstanding the need for vigorous assessment, we shall look to adoption agencies to relate to potential adopters in a sensitive and professional way. I am confident that in legislation we have the framework to ensure that.
Of course I accept that funding will be important. We are pleased about the funding settlement for personal social services announced for the next period following the spending review. There is no doubt that a substantial amount of the extra £66 million for adoption announced in the White Paper and made available over the past three years is being used by councils to improve their adoption support services. That is being delivered through the Quality Protects grant.
Of course we shall keep funding under review. My noble friend Lady Gould asked about the implications for the tax and benefits system of the review of adoption allowances. We promised in the White Paper to develop a new framework for adoption support services and financial support which is properly integrated with the tax and benefits system. We are developing that framework with support from a small group of stakeholders and we shall shortly be launching a public consultation on adoption support.
The noble Earl, Lord Howe, and a number of other noble Lords suggested that the current intent on independent review is too narrow. We shall be consulting on how the independent review mechanism will work and on the regulations to underpin it. The powers in the Bill are flexible enough to enable the independent review mechanism to be extended to any determination made by an adoption agency. We shall consult stakeholders when drawing up the regulations. The agencies are also subject to regulation through the National Care Standards Commission and complaints systems. It is not as if the sole external scrutiny comes from the independent review process.
My noble friend Lady Gould raised a number of important points on placement orders. She asked whether orders should be for specific placements rather than general authorisations to place. If a specific placement order broke down, the authority would have to go back to court for another order before the child could be placed again, even if another suitable set of adopters were available. That could lead to undesirable delay. General placement orders were backed strongly in consultation in 1999. A number of important matters on placement will need to be considered in Committee.
My noble friend Lady David spoke of the duty to inform the adopted person of the adoption. Retrospection, which was raised in a number of letters we have all received, was also mentioned by my noble friend. I understand fully the arguments in favour. Noble Lords will know that it was carefully considered by my honourable friend Jacqui Smith. Her concern was wanting to concentrate the focus of the agency on the essential work of finding loving families for children in care and that applying Clause 58 to adoptions made before the Bill was enacted would focus attention and resources away from that primary aim.
It is worth noting that requiring adoption agencies to apply the steps set out in Clause 58 to past adoptions would include adoptions which go back as far as the Adoption of Children Act 1926. Since then 875,000 people have been adopted in this country and there is also a question of raising the hopes and expectations of so many people and the practical difficulties which agencies would have to face in meeting those raised expectations. Therefore, while understanding the issue of retrospection, I believe that a number of difficult practical matters are involved.
I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, who said that it was not currently possible for adopted adults and their relatives to seek to make contact through intermediary services. My understanding is that adopted adults and their birth relatives are not barred by existing law or by the Bill from making contact. They may apply for registration on the adoption contact register, if the other party registers, and apply to the relevant adoption agency for identifying information about the other person. The agency may exercise its discretion under existing regulations to disclose information.
As regards the contact issue, I clearly understand that no child should be put at risk or made to see people he or she does not want to see. Equally, in some cases it will be in the child's best interests to maintain contact with his or her birth family. My noble friend Lady Thornton raised a number of important issues in that regard and I believe that the amendment passed in the other place was a significant advance. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor is closely examining the findings of the survey of good practice on parental contact in cases where there is domestic violence to see what further lessons should be learnt.
I am also aware of the number of organisations which have stated the details of cases in which it appears that contact has been ordered where there has been a history of violence and a child has subsequently been harmed or even killed. The Government are working with those agencies to identify the cases concerned and investigate whether the allegations are substantiated and, if so, what lessons we need to learn for the future.
Inter-country adoption is another very important matter. I understand the point raised by my noble friend Lord Brennan about the importance of the legal process. We hope to ratify the Hague convention at the beginning of next year. Part of the delay was the need to ensure that England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales were all able to ratify at the same time.
As regards a permanent secretariat, a team of case workers is currently at my department to process the papers of adopters who want to adopt from overseas, provide information about the procedures in other countries and act as a centre point of contact for queries about inter-country adoption. They also provide advice to our embassies in dealing with overseas governments.
There are many other issues to which I have been unable to respond but this has been a good debate. It is clear that in Committee we shall discuss matters of great importance. I agree with noble Lords who suggested that the Bill is complex and that we shall need to unpick it as we proceed through the Committee stage.
Ultimately, the critical issue here is the lasting significance of the Bill. It has been nearly a generation since this House last debated and passed a major Bill on adoption; it could well be another generation before it does so again. Over that time, tens of thousands of children, adoptive parents and birth families will have their lives touched for ever by the measures detailed in the Bill. For their sakes, we must get it right. We owe it to them to pass a Bill that will fulfil and support their aspirations and that will help to provide the chance of a new start and a loving family life for many thousands of children. I commend the Bill to the House.
My Lords, I shall be happy to do that. I shall place a copy of the letter in the Library of the House.
On Question, Bill read a second time.
My Lords, I have given notice to the noble Lord that I wish to speak. I do not want to oppose the Motion, but I seek an accommodation. I am totally in the hands of the Government on this matter.
I ask for an assurance that on the two issues of married couples and the total and absolute ban on homosexuals, amendments concerning those matters should not be taken before the Grand Committee, but should be taken on the Floor of the House. The reason is that the process of debate, certainly for noble Lords on the Back Benches, is completely different on the Floor of the House from that in a Grand Committee. There is a greater freedom and these are matters where, as the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, pointed out, we want the confidence of the people for the Bill.
I will co-operate on the clauses and the amendments. I do not seek to be technical at this time, after the dinner hour. However, I should be very grateful if the Government could take my point.
My Lords, discussions held in the normal way by the usual channels on this Bill have resulted in the decision that it should go to a Grand Committee. While I very much recognise the expertise and experience of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, on these and many other matters connected with the proceedings of the House, I would put it to him that there is ample protection of the rights of all Members of the House at Report stage in the normal way.
I assume that the noble Lord would prefer the greater freedom of Committee proceedings to re-examine and re-debate certain issues, but in the normal way, an agreement on the way of proceeding with the Bill has been reached. I would not wish even to attempt to give an undertaking about any different method of proceeding, other than to say that clearly it is extremely important that, on controversial issues such as those about which I know the noble Lord feels strongly, the House should debate them on the Floor of the House. The question is whether his view that the proceedings on Report are insufficient is the one that should prevail, or whether in discussion with the usual channels we could find a mechanism for dealing with the matter.
However, I simply want to say that the House does have its own methods of protection and I would put it to the noble Lord strongly that the Report stage of a Bill is extremely effective.
My Lords, I should like very briefly to respond. No, the Report stage is not the same thing. The Bill comes to us pre-cooked, whereas what we want to do is to cook it. I put it simply because the hour is late: no, the Report stage process is wholly inappropriate for Back Benchers to deal with such issues.
My Lords, I am afraid that when we move into culinary debate then I am completely out of my depth. I can say only that these matters are regularly discussed and debated through the usual channels. We shall simply have to leave it at that.
My Lords, as the Government Chief Whip said, the issue of whether the Bill should go to a Grand Committee was discussed. In order to reassure my noble friend, I should say that any discussions which take place on Grand Committee cannot lead to any decision. Neither the Government Chief Whip, myself nor anybody else can undertake that no amendments will be moved in Grand Committee—that is up to individual Peers—and no doubt discussions will take place on these controversial issues, but the very process of Grand Committee means that if an issue remains controversial it is bound to come back to the Floor of the House. I am sure that we shall all do our best to ensure that it is properly discussed when it comes back to the Floor of the House in order that the House can make good and proper decisions on the controversial issues. The Bill can then proceed on that basis.
I accept that that explanation is not 100 per cent satisfactory to my noble friend, but most of the Bill is not of a controversial character. Only the aspects to which my noble friend draws attention are matters of high controversy and we shall do our best to handle those issues as sensitively as we can when the Bill comes back to the Floor of the House.