Adoption and Children (Scotland) Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament at 4:15 pm on 7th December 2006.

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Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 4:15 pm, 7th December 2006

The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-5041, in the name of Peter Peacock, that the Parliament agrees that the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour 4:26 pm, 7th December 2006

The bill is important. In some respects, it is complex. It is timely and worthy. We can take credit from much of the way in which the Parliament has handled the bill. I pay tribute to the committee for its work to bring Parliament to this stage and to Robert Brown for the work that he has done during discussions not just with the committee, but with others. As Lord James Douglas-Hamilton and others said, Robert Brown made himself available to discuss fairly sensitive and important issues. We are all the better for that communication and deliberation and we now have a bill of which we can be proud.

Adoption is a crucial way to provide stability and security for some of Scotland's most vulnerable children. The current law on adoption is almost 30 years old. Since the Adoption (Scotland) Act 1978 came into force, much about adoption has changed, as have the circumstances of children who need to be adopted—they have changed not only since 1978, but during the past few years. We have all heard the stories about the impact on many communities of alcohol and drugs. Sometimes, children need to be taken into care. Adoption needs to be sought for many such children. We must rise to the challenge that confronts us.

As a result of several factors, very few healthy babies are given up for adoption. It is much more common for an older child to be removed from his or her parents because they cannot provide the safe and secure home that every child deserves. As a result, fewer children are being adopted. In the past 20 years, the number of adoption applications has fallen from about 1,000 per year to about 400 per year.

It is unfortunate that the current legal framework often fails to meet children's needs. That reality poses challenges for everyone who is involved in adoption. We need to act on several fronts. We need to encourage more people to adopt. We have heard today a vigorous and somewhat passionate debate about who we encourage to adopt. Robert Brown has put on record the significance of marriage in our society and our desire for more married people to offer to adopt children. We recognise that there are others who are equally loving and caring and who are in stable environments, whether or not they are married, who wish to adopt. We need to reflect that in our legislation.

We need to provide better support for adopted children and their families and we need to provide greater security and stability for children who are not adopted for whatever reason. I think that the bill does that. It comprehensively overhauls adoption to provide a modern and robust system that meets the varied and complex needs of children. It improves support for people who are affected by an adoption by giving clear access to adoption support services, which can be vital in helping an adoption to succeed and in helping adopted people to cope with the experience in the short term and throughout their lives. Such support can also help other people who have been affected by an adoption: not just the child, but the child's parents, members of his or her birth family or other members of the adoptive family. The provision of support is not time limited. The bill makes it clear that people who have a need for adoption support services will be able to access them whenever they need them.

As I have said, and as others have discussed, the bill provides for a wider range of people to adopt than is currently possible. We have had a vigorous debate about that and I believe that the decision that the Parliament has taken is correct. We need to reflect the circumstances in which many people now live their lives. We need to recognise that many people are capable of providing a warm, loving and supportive family environment for children, irrespective of the differences in their circumstances. It is right that we do not insist that joint applicants for adoption must be married couples.

We allow married couples to adopt jointly, but we need to recognise that other people in partnerships should be allowed to adopt jointly, too. I think that that will have positive effects. It will provide children who have been adopted into the families concerned with greater legal protection, because both adults will have full parental responsibilities. That is indeed important for the adults, but it is equally important for the children. We should not overlook the psychological benefits of the child having a strong legal relationship with both adults. I hope that the overall impact of the bill will be to encourage more people to come forward to adopt children.

It is right that we do all we can to support children. The bill will improve the lives of children who cannot live with their birth families but who are not adopted. Most important, the bill provides a new court order, the permanence order, which Robert Brown has valiantly tried to describe in delivering to the Parliament a better understand of that complex subject. All those things we have now put in place.

There is much that the Parliament has delivered since 2003 from which we can take satisfaction. Because of the work that we have done, many groups in society are far better off now than they were. In some respects, one of the defining themes of the Parliament in the past few years is what we have done for children, across a range of portfolios. Rightly, we have tried to consider the interests of children and to deliver what is best for them. I think that the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Bill fits very neatly under that key priority. The bill will deliver for some of Scotland's most vulnerable children. It is long overdue. It recognises the reality of 21st century Scotland. I hope that, as a result of the bill, there will be an improvement in children's quality of life, and better rights and support for children who badly need it.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party 4:33 pm, 7th December 2006

I take this opportunity to thank all those people without whose assistance proper scrutiny of the bill would have been an almost impossible task. Some sections of the bill have undergone substantial restructuring and rewriting since introduction. It has been a complex business indeed.

The clerks to the Education Committee and the agencies that work in the sector—a special mention goes to the British Association for Adoption and Fostering Scotland, which has been particularly responsive to our demands—have borne a heavy burden with good grace. No doubt they will be glad to put that burden down at the end of today. I also thank Robert Brown. He has shown exemplary willingness at all times to take on board with courtesy and consideration the many representations that were made to him.

That said, I echo the point of order that Lord James Douglas-Hamilton made this morning at the start of our stage 3 consideration. The bill's complexity and the many changes that it has undergone from its introduction to the end of stage 2 should have resulted in an extended period of reflection and discussion prior to stage 3, but that period has been much more truncated than normal. I do not think that even the minister can say, hand on heart, that this piece of legislation has emerged from the process in its best form.

As I indicated earlier, we in the Scottish National Party are particularly concerned about whether the provisions on the interface between the children's hearings system and the adoption courts are fit for purpose. If that interface turns out to be flawed in practice, the Parliament will need to rectify the situation through new primary legislation in the next session.

The SNP supports the bill and welcomes the broad thrust of its provisions. We see it as an important part of the bigger policy framework that must be put in place if we are to address the overwhelming disadvantages that are faced by children who are taken into care. I also welcome the publication of the Executive's national fostering and kinship care strategy, which is out for consultation from today—better late than never.

It must also be recognised that policy implementation is as important as policy development. A key test for the bill will be the construction of regulations that ensure the development of adoption support services that meet adoptive families' needs. We await with interest the introduction of subordinate legislation on this matter and on adoption allowances.

I have two more specific points, one positive, one negative. I still believe that the bill's biggest sin of omission is its failure to give a voice to children under 12 who are involved in the adoption process. I regret that amendments that sought to provide access to independent advocacy were voted down at stage 2. After all, the child is at the centre of the adoption process and has a right to be heard.

Finally, I am glad that Parliament used reason and common sense in dealing with the controversial issue of extending the pool of adopters. We must recognise that the bill's approach ensures that the child's interests are paramount. All prospective adoptive parents must undergo a very rigorous assessment process to determine their suitability to adopt a child. A great deal of care is taken to ensure that individual children will be matched with suitable adoptive parents.

I welcome the fact that the bill extends the pool of adopters beyond married couples, given that nowadays many other family arrangements can provide security and stability in children's best interests. As a married person with four children, I believe that marriage is the best family arrangement in which to bring up a child, but I am not prepared to rule out, because of marital status or gender, opportunities for vulnerable children, many of whom have been subjected to abuse or neglect by their natural parents, to find loving homes with parents who are suitable in every way.

The SNP will vote for this bill at decision time.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative 4:38 pm, 7th December 2006

I thank the minister very much for the tremendous trouble that he took and the dedication that he showed when he handled this subject in committee. I also thank the clerks for being prepared to go the extra mile in dealing with our amendments. The new Minister for Education and Young People should be congratulated on his moral courage in speaking as an MSP on a matter of conscience. Such a precedent is very healthy and welcome.

This extremely important bill seeks to modernise and tidy up the existing legislative framework that governs adoption. Adoption is legally defined as the process by which responsibilities and rights in respect of a child are legally taken on by new parents. It is clearly a pivotal process in the child's life and one which, by its very nature, gives adopted children a vulnerability that others lack. That is particularly true when the child has been looked after by a local authority.

Children are seldom taken into care unless they have experienced a trauma, such as abandonment, abuse or even parental drug or alcohol misuse. The state therefore has a special responsibility to protect children who are involved in adoption and, as far as possible, to make certain that they are placed in an environment in which they will thrive. The test must always be that the best interests of the child will be the paramount consideration.

I will talk first about the extension of eligibility to adopt and go on to discuss the future of fostering and kinship care. Eligibility for consideration as adopters will be extended to include cohabiting but unmarried mixed-sex couples and cohabiting same-sex couples, regardless of whether they are civil partners. I use the phrase "eligibility for consideration" because, as Adam Ingram said, all such couples will have to undergo the same rigorous, case-by-case assessment of their suitability that married couples and individuals must go through at the moment. No one will automatically have a right to adopt. As I have already said, the interests of the child will be paramount.

The two arguments for widening eligibility are that it will increase the number of adoptions and that it will remove the bar that prevents potentially appropriate adopters from being considered. The need to increase the number of adoptions has never been more pressing. The publication in the past few weeks of a report on children who are looked after by local authorities revealed that over the past five years there has been a rise of 20 per cent in the number of such children.

In my view, blanket discrimination against a whole group of people is not in accordance with the spirit of the 21st century. By the same token, I would argue that prejudice and discrimination against older married couples should be discouraged.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative

I will bring my remarks to a close and say merely that the bill represents an important milestone in the clarification and improvement of the procedures that relate to children who cannot live with their birth parents. I support the bill.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat 4:42 pm, 7th December 2006

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I welcome the bill. It is important and passing it will mark a significant change in the opportunities that are available to many of the most disadvantaged young people in Scotland.

In my role as the convener of the Education Committee, I put on record my thanks to the committee's clerks and advisers, especially Professor Kenneth Norrie, without whom we would not have been able to get through such a mammoth task. Consideration of the bill has been a weight on the committee's shoulders since some time before the summer. I am pleased that that particular weight has been taken off our shoulders, although the Executive has already placed another one on them.

I also put on record my thanks to my fellow committee members. The committee has worked extremely well in scrutinising and proving the bill, with the result that the bill that will be passed today is significantly better than the one that the Executive presented us with on 27 March. At stage 1, significant and useful evidence was received during our informal sessions with people who are involved in the fostering process and in submissions and formal evidence taking. Thanks to that evidence, the committee produced a report that showed that there was a need for significant change to the bill's structure.

Significant policy changes were not required because there was general, cross-party agreement on the policy objectives—that is why members worked so effectively on the bill. It was clear that the bill's structure was fundamentally flawed but, to be fair to the Executive, it responded extremely positively in changing the structure in line with the committee's recommendations. As result, stage 2 scrutiny was made difficult because it was hard to get a clear picture of what shape the bill would have once the changes had been made. The fact that further significant structural changes have been made at stage 3 has again made it difficult to obtain a clear idea of the bill's appearance once its passage has been completed.

However, the bill is important because it states clearly that the interests of the child should be the paramount consideration throughout the adoption and permanence order processes. Despite the huge public debate and the debate that we had this morning about who can adopt, the bill's primary focus is on improving the life chances of children who come from the most deprived backgrounds. Permanence orders are an extremely important part of that. They have not received as much publicity and discussion as they ought to have done, because people have focused on adoption. Permanence orders will change the way in which children with difficulties are able to access services. They will provide a permanence in their lives that is perhaps missing at the moment.

The provisions on permanence orders are important and it is vital that we ensure that they work. For that reason, I ask the minister to reflect in his concluding remarks on today's debate on the interrelation between the courts and the hearings system and to ensure that the issue is kept under permanent and constant review. I hope that, if problems emerge and we find that the model that has been put in place does not work, the Executive will commit itself to return to the Parliament quickly with any legislative changes that are necessary to ensure that the system works.

My one other regret about the bill is that I believe that it is unfortunate that we agreed to amendment 84 this morning. In years to come, when people look at that provision, they will say, "What on earth is that doing there? Where did that come from?" It concerns me that legislation is being passed with provisions that have no function and no purpose and with a definition that does not make any sense.

Finally, I thank the minister for his constructive engagement with the committee and members on the bill. Working together, the Executive, the committee and members have ensured that the bill is fit for purpose and fit for the young people in Scotland.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

We move to open debate. Speeches should be of four minutes.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green 4:46 pm, 7th December 2006

It is probably to be welcomed that all the more contentious amendments to the bill were dealt with this morning. Once that boil had been lanced, the Parliament was able to move on to debate the wider issues surrounding the adoption system. I think that we all agree on many of the principles, including that the best interests of the child should be key.

We all recognise the great commitment and contribution that adoptive parents make in our society. Many such parents would downplay the contribution that they make by emphasising that adoption is a rewarding experience. I am sure that that is the case, but many adoptive parents take on a very challenging experience. We should be proud to associate ourselves with the contribution that they, and all those who work to support them, make to our society. I am very glad that, in the bill that we will pass, we will make that recognition on a basis of equality for all adoptive parents—we will do so without the taint of any irrational prejudice that might have been included in the bill and that some members sought to introduce.

As we finish our consideration of the bill, I want to say two things to members. First, some members have told me that it is unfortunate that we keep having to return to issues around sexual minorities and that it is unfortunate that those issues dominate debates unnecessarily. My response to that is that, at one time, challenging racism and sexism was not an easy thing to do. The progress that has been made in our society did not happen by magic or by accident but because people were willing to push sometimes unpopular arguments in the face of opposition.

Secondly, I want to point out that the phrase "votes of conscience" seems to arise, these days, only in relation to issues such as how sexual minorities should be treated in our society and reproductive rights. I am a great supporter of the principle that we should all vote according to our conscience all the time. I certainly do not think that members should in any way be disciplined or frowned upon for voting or speaking according to their conscience. That is an important principle. How would members feel if discrimination and prejudice against their family was given greater dispensation? That is what is implied when it is said that votes on issues such as Roseanna Cunningham's amendments should be treated as votes of conscience, in some higher regard than any other vote that we have in this chamber.

We have a bill that I hope all members will be able to support. The Greens will certainly be happy to do so and I congratulate the Executive and Opposition members who have contributed to bringing the bill to its current state.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour 4:50 pm, 7th December 2006

I, too, thank all those who helped the committee with its consideration of the bill, and all the witnesses who came to or wrote to the committee. I also pay tribute to the ministers who listened carefully to the concerns that were brought to them by the committee and who have been prepared to change the bill and adapt it according to those concerns. That does not always happen, and I do not know that it happens south of the border in quite the same way that it happens here. It is a strength of our Parliament that ministers are prepared to listen to committees and take on board their concerns.

I return to what the bill is about. Despite the way in which it has been trailed in the media, the bill is not about anyone's right to adopt. I have to say to Patrick Harvie that the bill is not about challenging homophobia. I am perfectly happy to challenge homophobia, but that is not what the bill is about.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

Does the member acknowledge that if we allow the children of same-sex couples to continue to be disadvantaged by not having the legal protection of both their parents, that is an issue of equality and equal dignity for those children?

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

I will come to that, and I support that position. However, it is not what the bill is about.

The bill is about increasing the opportunities for those children who are no longer able to live with their birth parents to become part of a stable and loving family in the broadest definition of the word. That family may be one in which a man and woman are married, and it may be one in which two people of the same sex want to bring up a child together.

The bill introduces obligations on local authorities to provide support and services to families who are involved in adoption, and that includes a wide range of people who will be touched by adoption. By introducing the permanence orders, the bill creates greater stability for children who are in foster care or who are awaiting adoption. It is a pity that permanence orders have not been more prominent in the wider public perception of the bill, because they are probably the most important part of it.

The bill deals with kinship care, and I was pleased to see that issue progressing through the committee. It is important that those constituents who brought the issue to their MSPs can see it being raised in the chamber and dealt with in legislation and regulation. I hope that grandparents who for various reasons are looking after their grandchildren will eventually have the opportunity to be recompensed and will not have to bear the financial burden that would otherwise fall on local authorities.

Of course, the bill has not been without controversy and this morning several contentious amendments were debated. Again, I do not agree with Patrick Harvie when he talks about lancing a boil; members have the right to bring issues of concern to the chamber. They represent the views of constituents and faith communities that have been presented to them. Whether or not I disagreed with Roseanna Cunningham's views—as I did—she had every right to bring them to the chamber. I welcomed the opportunity to discuss and vote on such issues, because it meant that we demonstrated a fairly strong position with regard to the amendments and reflected the views of the majority of members of the Parliament. That was valuable.

I do not agree that issues of conscience are always about sexual orientation. There are many other issues of conscience, including war—an issue on which I once voted contrary to my party—and disarmament.

I recognise that the BAAF Scotland had concerns about the interface between the children's hearings system and permanence orders. I hope that we got that right; I had to bow to the superior knowledge of the minister, Adam Ingram and the BAAF on those issues, but good work was done on that.

The bill is not anti-marriage. It recognises that families come in many varieties and that the stability of the adoptive family's environment and the love within that unit can make a difference to those children who can no longer live with their parents and who need to be adopted. That, rather than the controversial issues, is what we must carry forward.

Photo of Ms Rosemary Byrne Ms Rosemary Byrne SG 4:55 pm, 7th December 2006

All the effort that has gone into the bill has been in the best interests of the child. I thank the minister for the moves that he has made; we all agree that he has listened. I also thank the clerks to the Education Committee for the tremendous support that they have given to our work on the bill, which has been complex.

I agree with Lord James Douglas-Hamilton and Adam Ingram that, had we had more time, the end result may have been better. However, Solidarity supports the bill and welcomes the changes that will make a difference to children's lives. Permanence orders will make a significant difference. I hope that guidance will clarify the interface between those orders and the children's hearings system. Allowing same-sex couples to adopt is a welcome move. I will not say more than that, because I think that we have dwelled far too long on the issue. It goes without saying that extending and expanding the number of people who can adopt is a good thing.

I am grateful for the work that has been done on kinship care, as that is the issue on which I focused particularly. Although my amendments were not agreed to, we have moved significantly in the right direction. I welcome the further work that was announced today. We must be clear about the importance of the extended family in children's lives. I hope that guidance will show that the first port of call when children have troubled situations in their lives and their parents cannot look after them appropriately—for whatever reason—will be the extended family. I believe that so strongly that I would like the minister to give an assurance on the issue when he sums up. When I spoke on the amendments relating to kinship care, I said that the outcomes of children who are looked after by local authorities are very poor. There have been efforts to improve the situation, but we have not solved the problem. Introducing permanence orders and giving a role to the extended family are among the best things that we could do to improve children's lives.

The issue of family group conferencing was not mentioned. On Saturday, at the conference to which I referred earlier, I was lucky enough to see a presentation on the issue by Children 1st. I hope that the minister will consider including in guidance family group conferencing, advocacy for children and all the other elements that are extremely important for improving children's lives. I agree with Adam Ingram that we should consult those under 12, because many 10 and 11-year-old children are more than capable of telling us with whom they would like to live and how they would like their lives to be shaped. I regret that that has not happened.

I regret, too, that in the debate we did not go into the issue of therapeutic services and support for families. I know that those are available to some extent. However, we need to up the ante and to acknowledge that it is no longer babies who are being adopted, but very challenging young people who have gone through a very difficult time in their lives. I hope that we can ensure that the financial support and services that are needed to support families—whether they are fostering, are kinship carers or are adopting—are provided.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat 4:59 pm, 7th December 2006

I welcome the passage of the bill, in which I have had a long-term interest. I echo the thanks that have been expressed to all those who contributed to it, especially the members of the adoption policy review group, which was chaired by Sheriff Cox.

The bill is a major reform by anyone's reckoning. As the explanatory notes say, it

"is intended to modernise, improve and extend the system of adoption in Scotland".

I believe that it does exactly that; in the modern vernacular, it does what it says on the tin. Parliament was right this morning to decide that in the future unmarried couples will be able to adopt jointly, after the rigorous scrutiny that anyone who adopts must go through. That has been the practical outcome of the unsatisfactory legal procedures that have been in place for many years, and we are now enabling what has in reality happened for years, by simplifying the appropriate legal processes.

There are two other areas of particular importance in the bill, one of which is the provision of adoption support services. It is welcome that the new statutory framework makes those services an integral part of the adoption process. However, the permanence order is perhaps the most innovative part of the bill. It was clearly necessary to provide for long-term security, short of full adoption, for children and young people who, for whatever reason, cannot live with their natural family.

I do not want to dwell on this area, but I continue to have concerns about the relationship between the children's hearings system and the court. The minister's welcome assurances about especially careful implementation are therefore entirely appropriate, and I am sure that he will want to work closely with the British Association for Adoption and Fostering and other relevant agencies.

One important area that has gone almost without comment today concerns the changes to adoptions from foreign countries. The safeguards that will be introduced are overdue; they will cover adoptions from countries that have not signed up to the Hague convention on the protection of children and co-operation in respect of inter-country adoption. Those important changes deserve due recognition.

Throughout the debate on the amendments today, and in earlier debates, the focus of what we are doing has been described as acting in the best interests of children, and that is clearly the fundamental point about the bill. What is in the best interests of children is what should happen. That is the culture of the courts and it is good that the bill makes it clear that that should be the statutory purpose as well.

Why are we doing all that? The key purpose is to achieve better outcomes for children in Scotland. It is quite clear from all that we know about children in official local authority care that their life chances, for whatever reason, are not as good as they would be if they were in a stable family setting, permanently adopted or in secure fostering. The permanence order is an important development in that area, because it ensures exactly that. It ensures the kind of background that will foster and enhance children, so that they can fulfil their full potential in later life.

The bill is founded upon the key principles of the best interests of the child and better outcomes for the child, so it is immensely welcome. That is why the Scottish Parliament was formed. The Parliament is able to deliver in that policy area and to reform the law in a way that is consonant with the needs of the country. I particularly welcome the bill and I commend it to the Parliament. I hope that it will be passed later this evening.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party 5:03 pm, 7th December 2006

I, too, welcome the bill. As was mentioned by the minister and by Scott Barrie, the statute that has been in place until now was enacted in 1978. As a practising solicitor in this city many years ago, I had a great deal of involvement with that act, all too often in opposing freeing orders for adoption.

When I was first involved in the law of adoption, I simply assumed that adoption was one of those things that had been with us since time immemorial, and that it was covered by one of those ancient Scottish acts that went back to the middle ages. Only when I was given lectures, free gratis, by Professor John Triseliotis, professor emeritus of social work at the University of Edinburgh, did I learn about the real history of adoption. In fact, adoption came into the law of Scotland only in the late 1920s. Prior to that, there had just been an assumption that if parents died someone would take in the children. Whether that was the uncle to whom James Douglas-Hamilton referred or a neighbour, they simply took in the child and the child's situation would be dealt with simply by the laws of inheritance, if need be, to cover their financial well-being. The children would simply take the name of the person who adopted them. We have never had the nonsense of deed poll in Scotland; people can call themselves what they want, so the children were called by the name of their adopted parents.

Adoption was introduced in the late 1920s, because in the carnage of world war 1 we lost a whole generation and, as a result, many children lost their fathers. That coincided with the period of Edwardian values. At a time when illegitimacy was still a great stigma, many children were living with people who were not their parents. There was a great deal of angst and worry that the presumption would be that the child was illegitimate, rather than a child whose father had died in service in world war 1. A law of adoption was therefore created, and I understand that the same happened south of the border. Adoption law reflects the values and nature of society. We introduced the law because there was a need to address the social mores and the issues that had arisen from the tragedy of the great war. However, our society has moved on. The Adoption (Scotland) Act 1978 is no longer fit for purpose and does not reflect our requirements in 21st century Scotland. That is why the legislation must be changed.

The debate has been good so far, although some comments that were made earlier were unedifying. As the minister said, everybody is aware that, tragically, the vast majority of children who are freed for adoption in Scotland are not bouncing, cherubic babies: they are the children of parents who have an alcohol problem, a drug addiction or some other problem. They are often deeply troubled or disabled children, who people do not want to have in their home or are unable to cope with. Rather than impugn the intentions and integrity of individuals who offer them a home, we should be grateful that there are people, of whatever sexuality, who wish to take them in and provide them with that environment.

The bill is not about driving forward an anti-homophobic position or a position on equalities. As all members, in particular Adam Ingram, have said, the issue is to retain the ethos of the law of Scotland that was introduced in 1930 and continued in 1978—the interests, care and welfare of the child are paramount and anything else is irrelevant. That is why I support the bill and will be glad to vote for it at decision time.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour 5:07 pm, 7th December 2006

Like many members, I welcome the debate that has taken place on the bill. I also welcome the work that was undertaken by colleagues on the Education Committee and thank all those who gave evidence and advice to the committee.

The primary function and purpose of today's debate is the creation of an adoption law that is relevant in 21st century Scotland. I thank Kenny MacAskill for the history lesson that he gave us on adoption over the past century or so.

As many members have said, the bill's primary focus is the best interests of the child rather than the interests of the adopter or the adoption agencies. On balance, that is right. Such an approach is in line with the direction of travel of most of the adoption policy that has been developed over the past 20 years.

Much heat was generated by this morning's debates on the amendments on the role of faith-based adoption agencies and the legal extension of adoption to same-sex or unmarried couples. However, the detail of the bill contains incredible advances, which many members have identified in their speeches.

The fact that we have updated the legal framework for adoption will provide much greater reassurance for the family unit, whatever the definition of such a unit. By providing legal security for the adoptive parents, we have therefore further enhanced the stability of any family unit and deepened the capacity of the family relationship within it.

The creation of permanence orders, like many of the other measures that I have explored in detail, is a substantial advance that will make a real difference to adoption policy in Scotland.

Like many members, I am keen that the fostering strategy will open up the opportunity for much more imaginative and innovative solutions for kinship carers and widen the role that foster parents and others in care situations can play. We have also given substantial support—through the creation of legal frameworks and, I hope, the provision of resources—to the range of adoption services to ensure that there are core plans for those who are adopted and for families who have taken children on board.

The ambition is to create a Scotland in which we increase the number of potential adopters. Furthermore, we must ensure that we create the space for people to feel comfortable coming forward to adopt. That is why we should address kinship care issues.

I want to focus on a couple of issues that popped up in this morning's debate—legitimately so, because it is in the nature of the Parliament that we should have passionate debate on issues of complexity and great moral consequence. I rarely speak in public on this issue, largely because of respect for my two children. I am an adoptive parent, and I would say to everyone in the chamber that the scrutiny that an individual or a couple undergoes is as rigorous as could be imagined. We should not underestimate the expectations that are placed upon adopters. The interests of the children are central to that.

Equally, I am conscious of the moral consequences, about which members expressed their concern this morning. I welcome Paul Martin's and Michael McMahon's amendments. I do not accept that those amendments represent irrational prejudices. It is unfair to use such terminology. While I may not understand the complexities of the debate and I may not even be totally interested in it, I was left in no doubt about its importance on Sunday afternoon, when my mother said, "I don't always know what goes on in that Parliament, son, but I've lit a candle for you this week." That is reassuring. We cannot legislate away the level of belief of my mother and many others in Scotland. We cannot bulldoze away that level of concern. We need to find consent in this debate.

The bill has advanced the issue of adoption in Scotland and has changed its context, but we need to ensure that we take as many people with us as we can. The measured contributions today on most issues have resulted in that, and Scotland and adoption are stronger because of it.

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

We move to closing speeches. I apologise to the member who has not been called.

Photo of Scott Barrie Scott Barrie Labour 5:11 pm, 7th December 2006

Many people outwith the chamber have put a great deal of work into ensuring we get a new adoptive and permanence regime that best meets the needs of our young people in the 21 st century. We all owe them, and those members who have worked so hard as well, a great debt of gratitude. Changes in societal norms have meant that there has been a seismic shift in the types of young people requiring adoption or long-term planning over the past four decades. Most adoptions now involve older children; as members have said, very few involve relinquishing babies. Indeed, step-parent adoptions make up by far the biggest proportion of current adoptions.

Just as there have been changes in the groups of young people requiring adoption, there have been changes in the groups that have been willing to offer an adoptive placement. This morning's debate indicated that. The debate included an extensive discussion on adoption by same-sex couples—Parliament was clear in its view on that issue. I do not wish to reiterate what I said in that debate, but, as other members have said in their closing speeches, it is crucial to remember that this legislation is not about adults' rights to adopt or care for young people in the long term, but about the young person's right to be brought up in an enduring family relationship that best meets their needs. I sat on the fostering and adoption panel at Fife Council for about six years, and I was always clear that it was never my key role to find children for childless couples. My key role was always to find the best possible placement for the child we were discussing. It is very important to remember that in the debate.

The bill is not just about adoption—it contains new provisions on permanence orders. I agree with other members that we have not discussed the concept of permanence orders thoroughly enough at stage 3. Permanence orders have great potential. I hope that they will be used extensively by practitioners, because they provide a real way forward to provide the legal security that many young people require but which cannot be given by the children's hearings system, with its necessity for an annual review. It is utterly impossible to plan permanently for a child's childhood if it is necessary to return every year in order to secure a placement. I hope that the concerns that have been raised about the interface between the courts and the hearings system can be resolved. If clarification is needed, I hope that it can be provided in secondary legislation.

The bill reflects and acknowledges the Scotland in which we live and its families. It seeks to continue to place the needs of children and young people at the forefront of deliberations on their future. The bill is good for the young people of Scotland and for their future. For that reason, if for no other, we should unanimously support the bill this evening.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 5:15 pm, 7th December 2006

I welcome the bill and will vote for it. Attention has focused on a limited number of controversial issues, most of which were debated this morning. I suppose that that is inevitable. Much that is valuable in a great deal of legislation passes without public comment, which gives a distorted perspective on the Parliament's work and the process of law reform. I suspect that that is the way it has aye been and will aye be.

People who are willing to adopt or act as foster carers or befrienders should be valued in our society. They should certainly be thoroughly vetted, be informed about and aware of the responsibilities that they are taking on and be supported financially and personally. However, they should certainly not be deterred by a process, a procedure or a perception that they do not conform to an identikit or politically correct view of what an adoptive parent should look like.

Adoption differs from foster care and befriending, in that it is for life for the parents and the child. It is a second chance for many of the most vulnerable children in our society who have been damaged and traumatised by their experiences of life with their birth parents. That is why I welcome the changes that have been made in the course of the bill's passage, in particular through amendment 84, in Paul Martin's name, to include the importance of a "stable family unit" as one of the factors that is to be taken into consideration when an adoption application is being considered. That is important because the stability of a family unit is capable of being assessed and evaluated when the adoption order is made, whereas endurance in family relationships is essentially a matter of speculation.

I find it odd that, if so much importance is being placed on stability and the enduring nature of relationships, we are allowing people who are not married to each other or have not entered into a civil partnership to adopt children. Although I acknowledge that people may choose to have children of their own outwith marriage because of some objection to the institution, I do not see why they should be allowed to adopt others' children. If a couple cannot make a binding commitment to each other, the law of adoption should not allow them to make a binding, lifelong legal commitment to a child. It is not too much to ask people to make a commitment to each other before they make a commitment to a child.

However, the Parliament has decided the framework for eligibility to adopt in its debates today. I hope that those who are responsible for running the adoption system and making such important decisions will reflect on the concerns that have been raised in the bill's passage and that they will make sound and careful judgments in future in the interests of the children involved.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 5:18 pm, 7th December 2006

The journey has been long and intense for everybody who has been involved in the process. I thank everybody concerned: the Education Committee's special adviser, Ken Norrie, and BAAF Scotland for their exceptional advice; the minister for his responsive approach to the bill, which is to be welcomed; our clerks, who have had to endure a great deal; and Iain Smith for steering us through the process since March.

It has also been a long journey in policy terms. Kenny MacAskill was right to say that adoption reflects the mores and norms of the time. Before devolution, the need to update adoption law was loud and clear, but it is only because we have the Parliament that we have been able to give the required time and attention to update the law. Although I have some criticisms about the last-minute restructuring of much of the bill, the bill team is also to be commended for taking a comprehensive approach to redrafting the bill.

One point that came up time and again was the importance of the child's opinions, as did the fact that their rights should always be paramount. That is grounded in the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, which Lord James Douglas-Hamilton steered through Westminster, and it is important that we are grounding the bill in the same principle.

The bill is just the legislative part of the journey of caring for looked-after children; the policy agenda has still to be progressed. That is why the strategy consultation is vital, why tackling the educational opportunities for looked-after children is important and why the family group conferencing that was mentioned should be examined and embraced.

I, too, want to refer to the more controversial debates that we have had. Apart from at conception, parenting and sex have nothing to do with each other. Parenting is about caring, nurturing and supporting, and many children would be horrified by the fact that their parents actually had sex. Adam Ingram is correct to identify the issue as being about same-gender parents, because it is not about sex. We should reflect on that.

A serious point needs to be raised about funding and resources. We heard a lot of evidence at stage 1 on the continued need for children to be looked after, both in institutions and in foster care. Sadly, many children may not be able to be adopted, and the Executive's idea that some financial provisions would be reduced because of the reduction in the number of children must be revisited.

Another vital point that led to the restructuring of the bill was that adoption support services should be continuous both pre and post-adoption. Some of the points about the drugs, deprivation and neglect faced by some of our children must be addressed. The problems related to attachment disorders that may affect children in the early months of their lives can still affect them seven or eight years later. It is important that the support exists, so I hope that as part of the policy agenda we will consider the therapeutic services that need to be addressed.

I regret the way in which permanence orders have been dealt with. I sincerely think that we may have gone into a problematic area that will cause difficulties, and Parliament and the Executive in the next session may have to consider primary legislation to rectify that. There will be a need for prompt post-legislative scrutiny.

Again, I thank everyone concerned. I am pleased that the Scottish National Party will support the bill.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 5:23 pm, 7th December 2006

I thank colleagues for the tone of the closing debate, which has been excellent. There have been some enormously brilliant speeches, not least Kenny MacAskill's historical tour de force and the introduction of Frank McAveety's mum into the proceedings.

I begin by thanking all those who have helped to mould the bill: the adoption policy review group, which began its work in 2001; the many organisations and individuals who gave their input to the Executive in their evidence to the Education Committee; the Executive and parliamentary officials who supported our work on what has been a complex and technically difficult bill; and the members of the committees, particularly the Education Committee, that scrutinised the bill. Perhaps above all, I thank the individuals who in private conversation and in public have told us about the challenges and barriers that confront potential carers and adopters and the young people who are fostered or adopted. The bill has benefited greatly as a result, and it will meet the needs of the children and adults whom it will affect and for whom it will stand the test of time.

I agree with Scott Barrie on the centrality of finding homes for children rather than children for homes. He hit on a significant truth. I also agree with David McLetchie's comments about adoption being a second chance for many young people. Those important insights helped to set the tone of the debate.

I do not want to rehash the debate about same-sex couples, as the issues have been fully aired. We have heard good speeches: from Fiona Hyslop during that debate; from Adam Ingram in this debate; and from many other members from across the chamber. My only comment is that the passage of the bill is another step on the way to a liberal, tolerant and inclusive Scotland that the vast majority in this chamber and across the country want.

I do not want to enter further into the debate on permanence orders—I do not think that I have enough brain cells to cope—but we will keep an eye on their development. As many members have said, there is an issue with implementation, which is, as always, nine tenths of legislation. Iain Smith was right to say that permanence orders are central.

At the heart of the debate has been the desire to improve the lives of the many children who have simply appalling starts in life. Euan Robson, in particular, spoke about that. Many children's life chances have been blighted by the action—or inaction—of adults to whom they should have been able to look for succour, nurture and support, but many of those children have been rescued by the selfless dedication and love of skilled foster or adoptive parents.

Over the years, I have had the privilege of meeting many such parents and young people, and to say that the experience is humbling is an understatement. Hugh Henry and I met another such group last night at the launch of the fostering strategy at Edinburgh Castle. [Interruption.]

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

Order. There is too much private conversation. This is an important speech.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I never come away from such meetings without learning something or picking up a valuable insight. Last night, I learned from young Jamie about the down-heartening effect of the stigma—from school, neighbours and sometimes communities—and personal challenges that foster children experience. Our attitudes and our systems need to deal with that. I contribute that insight to the debate.

The Parliament and the Executive are increasingly focusing on the challenge of children who suffer in the care of inadequate or abusive parents or parents who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Such children become, to one degree or another, the responsibility of the state as protector of the weak and as corporate parent. Aspects of our work that are germane to that challenge include our strategies for looked-after children and for young people who are not in education, employment or training; the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004; the fostering strategy; the youth work strategy; the getting it right for every child agenda; and the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Bill.

We know that society has not done well. The educational attainment of looked-after children has been flat for a decade, and both the children's hearings system and children's services in general have been under increasing pressure. However, amidst those severe long-term challenges, there are points of light and hope on which to build. The work of adoptive parents, foster parents and kinship carers such as grannies and granddads is central. As Scott Barrie and others said, the social context of adoption has changed and there is now a greater understanding of individual identity and how it plays out for children and their relationships with their natural parents and significant others in their lives.

I refute a point that Rosemary Byrne and others made about children under 12. It is not the case that children under 12 are not involved in the processes. There was a technical amendment about that, and the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 requires the voices of children under 12 to be heard.

When the Parliament passes the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Bill tonight, as I hope it will, it will be a milestone, but in many ways it will also be a start. We will move forward with the agenda of improving adoption services within the new and more coherent framework. We will develop permanence orders, which will bring greater security to adoptive parents and young people alike. We will develop better support arrangements for adopters, fosterers and kinship carers, not just in money terms but in terms of training and support, including support for foster parents who have been subject to accusations. That was not mentioned today, but it is a significant issue in relation to attracting more fosterers and adopters to meet children's needs. It is particularly poignant to think of young children suffering as we come up to the Christmas season.

The bill will make a real difference to the lives of children who cannot live with their birth families. It provides a much-needed modernisation of adoption that recognises the varied and increasingly complex needs of children who cannot live with their birth families. It provides for the challenges that adoption can pose and offers stability for children who are permanently away from their natural parents but will not move on to adoption.

All the evidence shows that fostering and adoptive placements provide by far the best future for many abused, neglected and vulnerable children and young people. I finish by thanking all the fosterers and adopters—grains of sand on the beach of challenge, as it must sometimes seem to them—for all their work and love and care for their young charges. They make a profound difference and I speak for everyone in the Parliament when I say that we are enormously grateful to them.

I commend the motion to the Parliament.