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Mr. Tredinnick: To support of her argument, will my hon. Friend remind the House that medical science is progressing so quickly that ladies can give birth much later in life? There have been newspaper reports recently of women up to the age of 60 giving birth. Does that not make my hon. Friend's case for raising the age limit?

Mrs. Spelman: I should like to be able to agree with my hon. Friend, but the Prime Minister's wife had my sympathy when she gave birth at 45. There is no question that managing a very small baby as one gets older is more difficult. My father, who is almost 92, may have found me quite wearing when I was born.

The child must be the focus. A child coming from care with considerable luggage from the experience of being displaced may benefit from going into a family where the parents are older than 35 or 40, and joining a family in which the other children are of a similar age to the adopted child and the parents are experienced in dealing with children of that age.

In Northern Ireland, there is an active programme to promote the adoption of children in their teenage years and older parents are actively sought. That experience shows that variable and arbitrary criteria can sometimes be obstructive in the adoption process.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): Is there not a risk that having the one-size-fits-all option of a national register may result in the individuals to whom the hon. Lady is referring falling outside it? The flexibility that authorities offer at present may give hope to individuals that they may not have if there is only one option.

Mrs. Spelman: Two points arise from that intervention. First, there must be full consultation on the criteria that the Secretary of State will set. We should agree on that as a basic principle. The criteria must also be simple, straightforward and easy to understand. Secondly, we need discretion, such as that exercised by my local authority. Children are individuals; they are not an homogeneous mass. Those who have been in care have individual problems that need specific assessment.

The great thing about a national register and matching process would be that a child with highly specific needs would be far more likely to find the best match from a bigger pool of parents. The Government and the Opposition do not disagree on that, and the Government's consultative document states that they want a national register.

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Behind the new clause lies a sense of urgency. We should like to change the law sooner rather than later. In Standing Committee, we heard the Minister's reasons for resisting an amendment--to a different part of the Bill--that was intended to achieve the same as new clause 6. He resisted it first because the Government were about to make an announcement on adoption, as they have since done. He suggested that we should not debate the matter further until the Government's proposals were on the table, after which we could have the fruitful discussion that we are holding now.

Secondly, the Minister argued that the Government could achieve a national register more quickly than would be achieved by an amendment to the Care Standards Bill. He said that the care standards commission would not be constituted until 2002 and that annual returns from local authorities, from which the national register would be drawn up, would not be supplied to it until 2003. I should like to revisit that point. The Government have produced only a consultative document, and I should feel much more confident if the Minister were to say that the Government would introduce a Bill early in the next session.

I am offering a risk-benefit analysis along the lines of my bird-in-the-hand analogy. If the Government should lose the next general election--always a possibility--and given that it is tipped to happen next May, some of the legislative programme announced in the next Queen's Speech would be likely to fall. That is not an unrealistic scenario. To allow the national register to come into existence, debate would have to begin early in the next session.

We are almost splitting hairs in saying that the legislation would come into force in 2001 while the care standards commission--the bird in the hand--will start in 2002. I cannot see why local authorities could not be urged to supply annual returns in time for when the care standards commission opens shop in 2002. Why lose another 12 months? Local authorities have the information, and we simply seek to legislate for that register to be held by an independent body.

Mr. Dawson: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who has given way three times, but it is not clear from her remarks that anything that she wants to achieve requires legislation.

Mrs. Spelman rose--

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),

Question agreed to.

As amended in the Standing Committee, again considered.

Question again proposed, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mrs. Spelman: The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre has a background in social work and in Committee he contributed many points that informed our work. As relatively new Members, perhaps we can agree that we may not be world experts on the legislative process. However, in my experience consultative documents do

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not necessarily receive the force of the law that they need to achieve change such as that which we have described. For that reason, we have tabled the new clause.

I hope that the Minister will give legislative effect to the consultative proposals. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre nods, implying that he has the same hope. Obviously, I would like them to be finessed in the way that I have described, particularly on the point of the appeals procedure, which as proposed in the document is not sufficiently independent to inspire parents with confidence. Indeed, they do not have confidence in the process at present because it is far too in-house.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. We need to move swiftly and, given that the reform has been a while in gestation, the difference between 2001 and 2002 does not strike me as huge. The important point is whether we are to have a Bill that will bring it into force.

Mr. Ian Bruce: The answer to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) is simple. If the Minister does not need fresh legislation, it does not matter whether the new clause is included in the Bill. The Secretary of State could implement the reform under several pieces of legislation, but he needs the new clause to make progress if he does not have such a power at present.

Mrs. Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has much more experience of the legislative process than I, having been a Member for longer, so he knows exactly how to set out the choice--either/or. However, because this issue is sensitive and important, we do not want to be fobbed off. We need cast iron assurances that the reform will come into effect, as do all the parents who are frustrated by this tardy and haphazard process, which would be so much better were our new clause accepted.

Mr. Brazier: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to the excellent new clause 6, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). It is set against the background of the positive Government document to which she referred several times, part of which concerns establishing a national register. Our new clause deals with that matter.

At this late hour, the House will be relieved to hear that I shall be brief. However, before dealing quickly with four detailed aspects, I remind hon. Members of the importance of establishing a national register and national standards. There are 54,000 children in care, of whom only slightly more than 2,000 were adopted last year. My hon. Friend gave some horrifying facts about the fate of many of those children. Up to a quarter of the girls become pregnant in care and we hear one sorry story after another. That is not to say that care workers and many devoted and loving foster parents do not do a good job, but in most cases adoption offers the best prospects for children in care because it provides permanence.

The case for a national register is overwhelming, and the best evidence of that is the performance league table for individual local authorities. The top three councils have adoption rates of between 10.5 per cent. and 14 per cent. of the children in their care, but more than 20 councils have rates of less than 1.5 per cent.

I wish to focus on one local authority that would benefit from a national register and some national standards. It happens to be a Labour council, but I do not mention it

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in a party political way. I should stress that the second best authority in the country, Middlesbrough, is a Labour council. Islington--left to itself, without a national register or national standards--has a miserable adoption rate of well under 2 per cent. of the children in its care.

The Voice--a very good Afro-Caribbean newspaper--has a lot of good advertisements on adoption, including one recently placed by Islington council. It contained a description of a little boy who needed a two-parent adoptive family who could reflect and promote his ethnic and religious identity as closely as possible. I do not wish to reflect at length on the views of some black members of an adoption group to which I belong, the Adoption Forum, about the good experiences that they had with white parents.

However, for a council to specify that it wants to match the religious identity and racial background of a little boy of less than two years old, and to imply that it is willing to hang on to that child--apparently indefinitely, as the council's poor figures indicate--if it cannot get that match shows how badly we need national standards and a national register.

I do not want to go over the general argument any further, except to say that there can be only a national solution to a situation where local performance is so patchy, varying from a few good councils to a large number that perform so badly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden has mentioned the need for a proper appeals procedure. There is a complicated process, whereby someone who has not been certified by one local authority to get on a list could be considered by another local authority. I prefer the provision in the new clause which makes it clear that there is an independent appeal outside the local authority system.

Independent management of the list is important. It would be quite wrong if the list were to be managed by the local authorities themselves. It would be wrong also if it were to be taken over by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, because although it has an important role to play--given to it by the Government--the list will not be seen as independent by adopters or older children hoping for adoption if it is controlled by the local authorities.

I was pleased to see in the back of the Government's consultation document that a large number of other groups--including the Adoption Forum, Adoption UK, which represents over 3,000 adoptive parents, and the National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and their Parents, which represents many ex-adopted children--are being consulted. I believe that the association shares that view.

It is critical that the measure is centrally funded. If the national register were set up and local authorities--some of which, such as Kent, are in difficulty with their social services funds--found that it became another service to pay for, there would be a danger that they would not use it. Also, the use of the register ought to be compulsory. I suspect that that is the Government's intention, but it is not clearly stated.

The present position is terrible in many local authority areas. The new clause gives us an opportunity to press the Government to get on with provisions that the preliminary consultation paper suggests already exist in outline, or at least constitute--in part--their intentions. It is

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disappointing--all the more reason for the new clause--that the next step will be another consultation paper, or at any rate a White Paper, some time before the end of the year, followed by another consultation period. I urge the Government to act as soon as possible.

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