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Dr. Brand: I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on making such a strong case for a national register for prospective adoptive parents. I also congratulate her on explaining that we are not just talking about a database for adoptive parents; the register would have to play an active role. However, I hope that the hon. Lady does not assume--as others appeared to--that being on the register would confer entitlement to a child for those who could find one. There is still much hard work to be done to ensure that prospective adoptive parents are suitable to adopt prospective adopted children.

Mr. Fabricant: Of course I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that, but does he agree that--as I said earlier--speed is of the essence? Of course the safeguards of which he speaks should exist, but the new clause would help to speed up the process and to secure a better match, as it were.

Dr. Brand: Undue delay is never useful, but, in the context of adoption, speed is also dangerous. I have a problem with subsection (4) of the new clause, which confers an automatic right if, five years ago, someone said that certain people were suitable adoptive parents.

Things change with time; attitudes change with time. I would be worried about prospective adoptive parents who changed their minds after two years: I would be a bit concerned about how committed they had been to the adoption in the first place.

The hon. Member for Meriden wants an agency that does not fit in with the National Care Standards Commission. The commission is a regulator and an inspector, not a deliverer of services. Adoption is very much an active process. It is not just about regulation; it is about ensuring that things are done properly.

Mrs. Spelman: I think that there are two misunderstandings of what I said. The first concerns the five-year period. Obviously, someone who no longer met the eligibility criteria that had been set nationally would not still be eligible. Secondly, I did not mention an agency.

Dr. Brand: The commission is to set up the national adoption register, and run it. That worries me. I do not believe that the commission, which we discussed during--I think--22 Committee sittings, has ever been seen as a service deliverer. When I say "service deliverer", I mean a deliverer of personal social services, which is what we are talking about in the context of adoption.

I support the hon. Lady's plea for appropriate and speedy action, but let me gently say to her that the problem has not arisen over the past few years. Many of us have discussed it over the past 20 or 30 years. Moreover, the extra complications that the new clause would cause in regard to inter-country adoption pose a significant problem. It would not be possible to develop a national policy to deal with it on the spur of the moment.

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Therefore, I say with great regret that, although we recognise the need to look at a much better package for adoption--mainly to look after the interests of adopted children and the support structures that they and their adoptive parents will need after adoption--I cannot support new clause 6. I do not think that that activity sits happily with--

Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman queries the role of the particular organisation concerned. Does he none the less accept that it is critical that the register be handled by an organisation that is independent of the local authorities themselves?

Dr. Brand: That is a valuable contribution. The hon. Gentleman is right. We are repeating our argument over standards in residential homes. There should be criteria that should not be breached by anyone if they want to become adoptive parents, but then there should be an assessment to see whether those criteria fit the particular child. That creates enormous complexity. We get add-ons to the basic criteria, which will have to be put somewhere on the register to see whether a match can be done.

It is like being a blood donor. A person may be group O, but there may be sub-groups that make that person unsuitable for giving blood to a particular patient. There is complexity in relation to adoption. There is an on-going activity which does not sit happily with the commission as we have discussed it. Therefore, unhappily, neither I nor my colleagues will be able to support the new clause.

Mr. Fabricant: Despite the contribution from the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand), I cannot help but think there is a degree of unanimity of support for the general thrust--

Dr. Brand: For the objective.

Mr. Fabricant: --for the objective of new clause 6. We must all accept that the present position will not do. The Utting report discussed the regulation of private fostering and was highly critical of the present arrangements. It concluded that private fostering as well as general fostering was an area where children were not being safeguarded properly. It summarised the position by saying that the present arrangements were unworkable.

The tragedy is that there are 54,000 children in care, yet there is a mismatch between the 54,000 children in care, most of whom would be better looked after in foster homes, and the number of people seeking to foster children. [Interruption.] The children are in foster homes, but they would like to be adopted by private families; I thank hon. Members for correcting me. My point is that there is a mismatch between the number of children who are in foster homes--in care--who should be adopted and the number of private families. A private family can offer a better environment for bringing up children. Again, I do not believe that there is any argument about that in the House.

Just as I think that all parties in the House would say that, where there is a mismatch between the number of people who are seeking a job and the availability of jobs, there should be mobility of labour, so I believe that there should be a mobility of children. It is wrong that there should be the mismatch of which I have spoken.

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As my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) pointed out, there is a huge variation between those areas where potential parents cannot be aged over 35 and those where the age limit is 40. That is not the only criterion that is different. In many different areas, many different criteria are used.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) said that he supported the general motive of the new clause, yet he asked what the point was of adding it to the Bill because it is in the Prime Minister's review of adoption. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden said, good intentions are not enough. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) asked, if the Government believe that a national register is a good idea in principle, why do they object to new clause 6?

In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, I made the point that there have been cases in which, after two or three years of waiting on a list, prospective parents have changed their minds about adopting. They have simply been discouraged by authorities saying, "You may or may not be suitable to adopt." People have second thoughts about adopting, as was shown in a recent television programme. Like other hon. Members, I have also seen such cases in my own constituency.

Mr. Ian Bruce: The Government rightly received an enormous amount of good publicity for their announcement that they would establish a national register, and we thought that that announcement was reality rather than spin. Is it not extraordinary that, now that a clause to do exactly that is being presented to them, they say, "No, we don't want to do it yet"? Are they not simply spinning, rather than getting on and doing something?

Mr. Fabricant: As I should like to think of this as a harmonious, cross-party debate, I shall not enter the debate on spin. Nevertheless, I do have to ask why Ministers are not keen to accept new clause 6. Undoubtedly, the Minister will eventually give us those reasons. However, even if the Government are not happy with the details of new clause 6, surely the new clause's principle could be included in the Bill. There is a vacuum in any such provision, resulting in 54,000 children being left in care.

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden described the position of the United Kingdom in relation to other countries on the inter-country movement of children. As we heard, only about 250 children from abroad have been adopted in the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) described such a case in his own constituency.

I have a similar case in my constituency, involving a family in Burntwood who want to adopt a young child from Romania. They are having great problems in adopting the child not only because of the different adoption criteria of different local authorities, but because the immigration authorities have said that the child has overstayed his leave to remain in the United Kingdom, thereby forcing the family to race against the clock in their attempt to adopt. The child may be sent back to Romania--not to go into care, but to be returned to the home, with quite dreadful conditions, from which he was only recently extricated.

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As my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden said, a national register has two advantages, the first of which would be central funding. Surely our duty of care to children in care applies equally to all children who will affected by the Bill--in this case, to children in England and Wales. There should not be regional variations in the exercise of that duty, and a centrally funded national register would ensure that each area has equal resources.

The second advantage would be central standards. I must confess that I had some sympathy with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight when he expressed reservations about new clause 6(4). He argued that people who had been included on an adoption register up to five years previously might no longer be suitable to adopt. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden that if new clause 6 is accepted, one of the tasks for the commission that maintains the national register would be very quickly to inspect the families hoping to adopt who had been put on a local authority register more than two or three years previously. Those families circumstances may have changed in the intervening period.

At present there is too much variation. There are about 80 independent fostering agencies and about 35 voluntary adoption agencies with a total of 60 branches. The situation is dire. There are 54,000 children in care, and that is 54,000 children too many. If there were 54,000 children in care with hardly anyone seeking to adopt, at least the position would be understandable, but that is not the case. There are more than 10,000 families seeking to adopt children. If new clause 6 means that some, if not all, of those 54,000 children in care can be adopted into a stable family environment, it should be adopted by the House tonight.

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