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Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's point and I am sure she is right about the causes, but may I point out that 20 per cent. is not an especially high rate of adoption breakdown? The fact that 80 per cent. of adoptions succeed, often with no support of any sort being received and despite the fact that nearly all the children involved have experienced some sort of trauma, demonstrates what a successful institution adoption is.

Mrs. Spelman: By referring to the 20 per cent. breakdown rate, I was not implying that adoption was anything but an excellent solution for many displaced children. However, I hope that the strategic role assigned to the NCSC by the new clause will ensure that the breakdown rate is even lower.

One more piece of the jigsaw could usefully be addressed by the NCSC: providing help to the relinquishing family. They are rather left out of the equation, which leads to the

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complex triangle between the child to be adopted, the adopting parents and the relinquishing family becoming unstable. Some adoption breakdowns are rooted in a poor process of relinquishment.

Mr. Dawson: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Spelman: I know that the hon. Gentleman cares passionately about the subject, but I should like to make some progress before giving way again.

There is no doubt that one of the advantages of having a national register would be improvement in the matching process. I carried out a little research into authorities local to me to find how practice can vary across the country. That is pertinent to the debate, because it is a problem that the new clause and the national register would address. I examined three local authorities which contrast in terms of size, socio-economic mix and other features. I would like to applaud their efforts, but I am using them to illustrate the extent of variation in practice between local authorities.

I shall take the example of the Coventry adoption service. It allows prospective parents from the city and the rural hinterland of north Warwickshire to adopt children under 12 months from its care. Most people start with a wish to adopt babies, but very few are available. That trend has developed over the past 20 years, with the increasing amount of birth control and support for younger women who choose to manage single handed with a small child. Coventry placed only two babies last year.

For children older than 12 months, the adoption team prefers adoption by parents who live within 50 miles of Coventry. However, adoption outside that radius is permitted, subject to the usual statutory checks by social services or by voluntary agencies such as the National Care Homes Association and Barnardos. Regional adoption is seen as the best option by the local authority because parents living further afield would face practical difficulties in attending Coventry's preparation groups in the run-up to adoption.

Our new clause is designed to address a practical point. There are cost constraints on local authorities, and that is one of the reasons why they tend to focus on a tight radius. The authority is thinking about the costs that will have to be met by prospective adoptive parents, and we should not forget the cost to social workers, who have to travel from their headquarters to interview parents. When those journeys are further afield, that adds significantly to the costs of a social services department. That will need to be addressed if we are to have an optimum matching process that allows a countrywide national register to be held and for the best match to be found.

Mr. Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend agree that speed is sometimes of the essence? Did she see a recent television programme that showed potential adopters, who said that they had been on the register for two years, but that after those two years of waiting they began to question whether they wanted to adopt, and came off the register? Sometimes it is a good thing that people can be matched early. That maximises the number of families that are prepared to adopt.

Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend makes an important and sensitive point. A couple may discover that they

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cannot have children quite late in life and quite close to the upper age limit, above which they are not able to adopt. The waiting process can be a time of terrible anxiety and uncertainty. Despite initial enthusiasm to adopt, some couples decide in the face of that sort of pressure that they cannot see the thing through to the end. It is hoped that, through the creation of a national register and much improved opportunities for matching and by setting national criteria that are clear and apply throughout the country, the process will become much quicker. The loss of confidence in the process and people giving up on it might become less common occurrences.

I shall give some contrasting examples. Another large local authority near to my constituency is Birmingham. It faces a particular challenge because a quarter of the children in its care are of dual parentage. For that reason, Birmingham focuses particularly on other large conurbations for non-white parents. That is another practical problem that would be overcome by introducing a national register. The capacity for an authority such as Birmingham, with many children of mixed ethnic origin, to find the optimum match would be made more easy.

I contrast that with a small authority, not to criticise that authority but to illustrate some of the problems and some of the reasons for the variation in eligibility criteria that would be resolved by the new clause. My constituency lies in the Solihull local authority. One of its difficulties is the matching process. Its age limit is children under two years of age. That is in contrast to the flanking local authorities. The age limit for parents is not applied in Birmingham and Coventry, but it is 35 in Solihull. Sometimes discretion can rightly be used, but that is Solihull's publicised upper age limit. Therefore, my constituents might well ask themselves why they should be subject to such an age limit when neighbours just over the border in other local authorities are not.

Solihull tries to match children with parents from the same race as a first choice, if necessary placing them with parents outside the borough to achieve its aim. It simply has to because it is so small. That highlights the problem that local authorities are so different in their composition, which has led to the variation in criteria.

9.45 pm

Some local authorities have restrictions on inter- country adoption. I had a constituency case where a couple particularly wanted to adopt from China. They had seen that moving documentary called "The Dying Rooms", which no doubt other hon. Members will have seen, about young Chinese girls left to die because in their society a baby boy is more revered than a baby girl. My constituent's response was to seek with total determination to adopt from China, but they were refused because of restrictions on inter-country adoption.

I am not clear whether that is the key factor that contributes to another rather harsh statistic, but I have my misgivings. It is significant that, if we look at the number of inter-country adoptions by a comparable developed European country with a similar sized population, such as France, we find that there were 3,666 inter-country adoptions last year, compared with 250 in the United Kingdom. That marked contrast must, in part, be explained by some of the criteria set by our local authorities in terms of allowing children to be adopted from certain other countries. I have direct experience of

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some restrictions on inter-country adoption in my local authority, which may be contributing to the low rate of inter-country adoption. That reinforces the importance of the need for nationally set criteria.

The new clause is all about making the adoption process easier and more effective, and, at its heart, helping children who languish in care--all to often for far too long for lack of a better process--to find permanency in a family that really wants to adopt them.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): It may assist my hon. Friend if I recount my experience of helping a family adopt a Romanian child during the last Parliament when I was much involved with eastern Europe. A child was successfully adopted and the family are very happy, but the parents, who were British nationals, suffered great anguish and heartache because the law was unclear at both ends. They sought to take a child from an orphanage who had little future--we all know about Romanian orphanages--to give that child a life over here, but at one point they were extremely worried that they might be arrested. I shared their considerable heartache and I commend what my hon. Friend is trying to do in the new clause.

Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend underlines what we are talking about here, which is that there is a lot of heartache in the adoption process, not only for those who are unsuccessful in adopting, but often for those who succeed, but who find the process a lot more difficult than they thought, and also, often, for the children involved who may never fully recover from the damage caused by being parted from the family that has relinquished them. That is why we must proceed with sensitivity but also with haste, in order to address some of the real problems that could in part be corrected by the new clause.

The new clause would be fairer both to the child and to the parents, given that the state has so obviously failed to fulfil its role as a corporate parent, as is shown by the statistics relating to children in care. We are dealing almost simultaneously with the Children (Leaving Care) Bill, and many of us have served on the Standing Committees considering both these Bills.

Those of us who have served on both Committees are all too aware that 80 per cent. of children leaving care end up homeless, 75 per cent. have no educational qualifications and--this particularly affects me when I think about it and put myself in the girls' shoes--one in seven of the girls leaving care is pregnant or a mother by the age of 16. We cannot hold our heads up high when we think about the role that the state has played as a corporate parent to those children in care.

For all those reasons, we strongly advocate a reform of adoption law so that it is possible for more of those children to leave care and to be adopted in a family--a family that is there not just till the child reaches the age of 16 or 18 or some other fixed limit, but in which, as in any family, a child is for life. That is a strong reason for reforming adoption law.

The Government's proposals do not get to grips with the problem of variation in eligibility. Local authorities such as mine, which have an upper age limit of 35 or 40 for parents, are getting into difficult territory. Women are delaying the age at which they have their first child. There are various social reasons for that--women are looking

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for equal employment opportunity, and will often wait for a considerable time before stopping to have a family. They may not realise that their fertility has declined during that time, and they may find, too late, when they have passed the age limits for adoption, that not only can they not conceive, but adoption is no longer open to them.

We strongly contend that there are parents over the age limits who offer good adoption opportunities for children in care, especially for children aged five, six, seven or eight and possibly children in their teens. Not enough consideration is given to the adoption prospects of children in their teenage years. It may well be right for them to be adopted by slightly older parents with more experience of slightly older children.

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