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5.9 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I have mixed feelings about the Bill. I am torn between welcoming any measure that would tackle abuse in homes for children, the elderly and vulnerable adults with learning difficulties, and considerable disappointment that this huge, complicated and lengthy Bill is mostly about establishing regulatory structures but does not contain much of a clue about the content of those regulations.

I am co-chairman of the all-party adoption group and a vice-chairman of Voice, which looks after the interests of adults with learning difficulties.

I shall make three relatively brief points before focusing principally on children in care and adoption. First, I echo the points that have been made thoroughly and extremely articulately by several of my hon. Friends and, most recently, by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). A balance must be struck on regulating residential and nursing homes for the

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elderly. As my hon. Friends have said, that balance must focus on the quality of care, not meeting the length of a tape measure.

Another good residential home has closed recently in my constituency because of financial overstretch. Its owners said, bluntly, that reading "Fit for the Future?"--the Government's consultation document--finally persuaded them that their home had no future. [Interruption.] The Minister may shake his head, but they said that publicly.

Secondly, it is also extremely important to strike a balance when legislating for pre-school child care, and considerable emphasis must be placed on weeding out potential abusers. The industry is expanding quickly under the working families tax credit and other Government policies and, irrespective of whether one approves of those policies, it is sadly inevitable that paedophiles will try to get into the market as it expands. The industry is vulnerable because 126,000 people have been convicted of serious sexual or violent offences against children. However, the need for checks--such as those carried out by the police, as well as the measures hinted at in the Bill and the rigorous pursuit of references--should not be confused with petty over-regulation.

We should learn from our dreadful experience of the ham-fisted attempts of social workers in Kent to close several excellent playgroups after the introduction of the Children Act 1989. An especially good playgroup in Whitstable came within an ace of being closed down on the basis that there was insufficient provision of lavatories, even though the Government circular issued in the wake of the Act made it clear that the scale guidelines on lavatories were not to be interpreted mechanistically. The inspectorate was forced to back off and we saved a good playgroup at the last minute.

Thirdly, I want to make a particular point on adults with learning difficulties. The Government's ideas, if fleshed out, should be good news, but I remind the Minister of a matter that has been on his desk for some time. In a joint letter, the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and I raised the matter of access to the files of people with learning difficulties. A legal anomaly seems to have existed for a long time. Whereas adults are entitled to access to their files and can obtain files on behalf of children, there is no mechanism for getting hold of files on behalf of people with learning difficulties, who, unfortunately, are prevented from obtaining their own. I hope that the Minister will address that.

The Minister will not be surprised to hear that adoption and children in care constitute the principal burden of my speech. Hon. Members from all parties have raised the issue of adoption. We all welcomed the news that Downing street was setting up a unit to consider the lamentable figures: fewer than 4 per cent. of children in care have been adopted in the past five or six years. That is only 2,000 out of nearly 53,000 children who are languishing in care. The majority of them are in foster care, but a proportion are in children's homes. Twelve thousand have been in care for more than four years. Some of those are now too old realistically to be adopted, but they could have been candidates for adoption when they were first placed in care.

I was tremendously disappointed when I read the Bill and found that, while plenty of clauses relate to regulating fostering agencies, it provides no specific ammunition on

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adoption. The Secretary of State made only a passing reference to adoption in his opening speech. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I did not hear that sedentary intervention.

Mr. McCabe: I simply said that the Secretary of State made a more lucid statement than the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who said that all children who came into care for any amount of time should be considered for adoption.

Mr. Brazier: The Secretary of State made no statement on adoption. He mentioned it in only half a sentence, whereas my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) made sensible recommendations. I believe that, after a transitional period, when it has been established that children are most unlikely to return to their birth families, in principle, every child should be considered for adoption. There are examples in my constituency of much older, severely abused children, who have been successfully adopted with remarkably little support, even though, like many other hon. Members, I would argue for more support.

Mr. Hinchliffe: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brazier: I am sorry, but we are up against the clock and many other hon. Members wish to speak.

I want to mention two subjects in this area that the Bill could have covered but does not. There have been strong statements from Downing street about the way in which we will coerce--that is the only appropriate word--the many local authorities with appalling records on adoption from care into providing for more adoption, and especially into considering more favourably parents who want to adopt.

Let me deal with one canard. Time and again when I have debated the point with senior social workers, they have said, "Ah, Mr. Brazier, you'd be the first to castigate us if we placed for adoption children who were subsequently abused." Yet the local authorities that have the worst records of not undertaking proper police checks and thus of placing children in foster care, where they have been abused, and which have repeated incidences of abuse in their children's homes, also have a lamentably low record on placing children for adoption. That can be checked in the Library.

For example, three London authorities are involved in one case in my constituency. For many years, they placed children with a single man who was sent to prison two years ago. He was known to Kent social services as a potential abuser, yet for 10 years three London local authorities placed children with him for fostering because they could not be bothered to check with the local social services. Last year, one of them, Lambeth placed fewer than 1 per cent. of the children in its care for adoption.

I should like to propose concrete measures for coercing those authorities into giving parents who want to adopt a fair chance, after carrying out the sensible police and reference checks. They should not discard them simply for the familiar, politically correct reasons that we have heard so often.

There are several ways of doing that. One is a national register, which was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring. I would support that. If the

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Government are not willing to go that far, another approach would be to put some welly at least into the existing legislation on value for money. Arguably, more than half of local authorities are performing really badly, but we could take the duty away at least from the really bad ones at the extreme end--the Lambeths, the Islingtons, the Hackneys and one or two leafy rural authorities, too; why does Dorset have such a poor record when Bournemouth next door has a good record, for example?--and hand the duty over either to voluntary agencies, or to a national agency.

A second proposal within the issue of adoption and children in care could be in the Bill and is not. I have said that the Bill is all about setting up frameworks for regulation. I think that there is much to be said for having a national framework, but there is little hint of what the regulations will be.

I know that the Minister is a fair-minded man. He kindly received a delegation of the all-party group on adoption before it had even formalised its all-party statement. We had a good exchange with him. Last year, his Department commissioned some excellent research, with which I know the Minister is familiar, from Cardiff university. It was published by BAAF--British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering. It caused considerable ripples because it took the lid off the poor practice in many local authorities. Above all, it ended with a mass of detailed and sensible proposals in that area.

Many of us hoped that those proposals would form a basis for Government regulations and that they would then be put out to consultation, so there was dismay when we heard that, instead, the Government had given the whole package back to BAAF and asked it to spend a long period bringing out its own regulations, which would then go out to consultation.

I do not want to get involved in any personal attacks. I look forward to the director of BAAF, Felicity Collier, addressing our all-party group on the subject in a fortnight's time, but two facts are indisputable. First, BAAF has consistently supported the practice in most local authorities and attacked organisations such as the Institute of Economic Affairs, which first took the lid off what was going on. Secondly, BAAF is principally funded by adoption agencies, including many of the local authorities where the problems exist, so it is disappointing to hear that it, rather than the independent report, will be given the role of providing the core of the regulations. Ironically, BAAF published that report. I hope that, in answering that point, the Minister will identify what pressure he has put on BAAF to ensure that some strong voices from outside the immediate BAAF club are involved in drafting those regulations.

Within the limited time available to me, I should like to make two further points. First, the Minister is setting up a children's commissioner with the power to look at the interests of children in care, a proposal that is warmly welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, although there have been various criticisms, and questions as to whether it goes far enough. I think that, on balance, it is a good thing, but I strongly suggest that we need something else--it was hinted at by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring and my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe)--a clear statutory role for volunteers in the system.

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By chance, I heard testimony only a month apart; first at a Voice meeting from someone involved in whistleblowing in the learning difficulties area; and then from a lady who had much to do with taking the lid off child abuse in Wales. It struck me how difficult it was for professionals to blow the whistle, so I make an appeal--I see that my time has come to an end, Mr. Deputy Speaker--for a much bigger statutory role for voluntary mentors in the system.


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