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Mr. Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend agree that if such a register had no statutory backing, local authorities would have no statutory obligation to provide information for it? Just as there is a patchwork of criteria across local authorities for people who are allowed to adopt, so there might be differences in the degree of co-operation authorities would be prepared to offer with such a register if it had no statutory backing.

Mr. Collins: I take my hon. Friend's point. The vast majority of local authorities would want to co-operate, whatever their political control. However, we are dealing with a disparate range of local authorities and, without statutory backing, there is less chance of receiving 100 per cent. co-operation from 100 per cent. of them, if only because local authority officers--who, as we know

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from our constituency work, are often greatly burdened with responsibilities and the other requirements that are pressed on them--tell us that they are barely able to keep up with their statutory duties.

Those officers certainly would not be able to undertake duties that were, in effect, voluntary. Some of them might downgrade their co-operation with the register--although not in a deliberate attempt at sabotage. They would tell the elected councillors that they must carry out Parliament's statutory requirements. Only when they had done that would they be able to undertake other activities. Those activities might well be desirable, but they would not have the time or resources to undertake them.

Early statutory backing for a national register is important. The new clause offers an appropriate mechanism for debating it. I hope that the Government will look with favour on the provision--ideally this evening. Ministers listened constructively when we debated the measure in Committee, so I hope that in that spirit, they might reflect on the new clause and offer us some thoughts on it at a later stage.

It is important to acknowledge that if we place the welfare of the child at the centre of our objectives--as we should--the best means to advance that welfare will be to ensure that the child, or those who make decisions on the child's behalf, have access to the widest possible pool of potential adoptive parents. That cannot happen when the pool in any given area is confined by the local authority. Only if it is national can the pool be as large as it should. That is why I hope that, whatever the fate of the new clause, we move as swiftly as possible towards the establishment of a national adoption register.

Mr. Ian Bruce: I speak to the new clause from two aspects of my personal experience. First, I am the joint chairman of the all-party group on street children. I see that one of the other joint chairmen, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), is leaving the Chamber. She is probably going for a rest. Secondly, my wife and I were short-term foster parents for several years. Both those experiences are relevant to our discussion of the new clause.

Whenever the all-party group makes overseas visits in connection with its work on street children, we meet British people who have taken an enormous amount of time and trouble to adopt children from the country in question--however difficult it is to reach. When we ask them why they have done so, the answer always comes back to the fact that, in the UK, they were barred for being too old or the wrong colour or whatever. There is an enormous latent demand from parents who want to adopt children.

We often say that the primary purpose of any adoption must be the benefit of the child--that is a given. However, if an adoption is not to the benefit of the parents as well, there cannot be a proper match. No childless couple or individual adopts a child other than to fulfil a need. There is a natural human desire to have children and to bring them up. My wife and I have been lucky enough to have four children, and bringing them up--however well or badly we have done it--is our greatest achievement. We must take account of the couples who want to adopt children, because they are likely to provide the best homes for them.

10.45 pm

I wish to describe the experience that my wife and I

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had when we decided we wanted to become short-term foster parents. At the time when my first son was born, we lived in Scotland. My wife had given up work and we thought that we could do short-term fostering in our house while we brought up our young children. We therefore made inquiries but, after six months, a decision had still not be made as to whether we were a suitable couple to become short-term foster parents.

We moved, so we started the process again in West Yorkshire when that was a county authority dealing with fostering. We met wonderful people who were clearly concerned about children, but we never met anyone who seemed to have any common sense. I am grateful that our social worker friend, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), is smiling at that. We had meetings, but then everything would go quiet for three months. We would ring up to find out what was happening about the fostering and someone would say, "I've been terribly busy, so I'll come and see you again." We would have another meeting and another three months would go by.

Social workers investigated my work and our family. The strange thing is that in the time they took to decide whether we were a suitable couple--it was more than a year--my wife became pregnant with our second child and I lost my job. By the time our background had been investigated and the social workers had decided we were suitable, our circumstances had completely changed. The process was daft.

We should not accept people who walk in off the street as short-term foster parents, but we must get on with the process of carrying out the investigations. One of the problems is that the social workers who are responsible for the children with difficulties who might be suitable for short or long-term fostering and adoption--that is sometimes the ideal route--are so swamped with social problems that they have no time to consider whether the right type of parents are available to adopt the children. Even more important, areas with social problems are not likely to be the areas where the mass of the potential adoptive parents live. There is a mismatch between the areas affected by social problems and the areas where the more stable families who are better able to look after children live.

That mismatch takes place between different local authorities, and a national register would at least start to address that problem. If we had more time, the new clause could have gone much further in describing how we could establish the register. However, such a register might kick-start the process so that it works properly.

Another problem in the adoption process is the fault of Parliament. Every time a child is abused in the system--unfortunately, an awful lot of that abuse has happened in children's homes--we pile on social workers rules and regulations that make them so incredibly scared and careful that they cannot take a step without making yet another check. They cannot lose their job for refusing to approve someone as an adoptive parent, but they might be criticised in a judicial inquiry set up by this place if they make a mistake.

We know that if we leave children in children's homes, and do not give them permanent families, they are at enormous risk. I do not know how many children have been abused by their adoptive parents, but I suspect that

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the number is tiny: I cannot recollect a case that has been in all the newspapers. We would remember such a case and comment on the fact that adopted children were being abused. That does not seem to be happening.

Mr. Brazier: The councils with the worst records on abuse in children's homes and among foster carers--Lambeth council has been the source of recent, well- publicised examples of the latter--are the same councils that are exceptionally poor at putting children out for adoption. My hon. Friend is therefore entirely right to say that the endless checking of politically correct minutiae does not keep abuse at bay.

Mr. Bruce: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is much more knowledgeable about such cases than I am.

This may sound too political, but when the Government want a good headline, they announce that they will do something about this problem. I made speeches similar to this when the Conservative party was in power because I wanted the system to work better. The Government could do something rather than just talking about it, and they could benefit their political careers--if that is a requirement for getting something done, that is fine. However, it is not acceptable that the Government should brush the new clause under the carpet and say that this would be a good thing to put in their manifesto and act on in the next Parliament; action should be taken now. Let us not have any delay.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): I am glad to have the opportunity to make a short contribution to the debate. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and to the House for the fact that I was unable to hear the whole of her speech. I strongly support new clause 6, and this is a good opportunity for the House to consider it. The House is particularly lucky to have the Minister of State to reply to the debate, because he has been at the forefront of the Government's efforts to introduce and speed up change in adoption. He has chaired the performance and innovation unit's steering committee, which has looked into the matter.

Those of us who believe that the new clause should have a fair wind find a good deal of support from a pretty powerful source because page 4 of the adoption report contains an introduction by the Prime Minister. He says:

The question is how one implements that, and my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden is absolutely right to table the new clause to find out whether the policy can be implemented in this Bill.

I think that Members on both sides of the House agree that the changes and welcome innovations in adoption law have been a long time coming. We know that there is pressure on legislative time in any Parliament, but it is exceptionally heavy in the current Parliament--the Government have packed this Session with Bills. I say that not to be controversial but to emphasise that when there is a parliamentary vehicle available for a purpose, it should not lightly be set aside.

We have heard what the Prime Minister has said on the subject and we know that it will be considered over the next few months. The consultation document issued this

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month allows for a proper consultation period--not one that is unduly short, as others have been, but one lasting three months, with receipt of consultation responses expected by 6 October. I doubt that the House will return after the long recess before that date; in addition, those who are expert in the subject will know what to expect in the way of responses to the consultation and will have time to assimilate them.

With all that in mind, I would argue that it is not impractical, in parliamentary terms, to include in the Bill a statutory framework for a national adoption register; nor would it be inconsistent with the Government's manner of legislating--which we sometimes deplore, but which might be appropriate in this case--if the new clause were accepted as the vehicle and, provided that the principles were set down in the primary legislation, modified to some extent to enable the details of a national adoption register to be dealt with in secondary legislation.

I hope that I have established that there are perfectly sensible reasons to accept the new clause now, before the Bill is returned to the other place in the normal course of events. The Bill came from the other place on 5 April without the issues addressed in new clause 6 having been debated, because it was only in February that the Prime Minister had made his--welcome--announcement of a personal initiative to take a grip on adoption. The Prime Minister has been subject to great pressure in recent weeks--rightly so, most Conservatives would think--but on this subject we can find common ground with him. He has spoken a lot of good sense and we are glad to lend our constructive support to his efforts.

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