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Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I am very grateful to have this opportunity to debate the criteria for adoption and, in particular, appeals. There is a great deal of activity regarding this subject in the media. In addition, the Government have produced the performance and innovation unit report, the White Paper and the ministerial statement. A great deal of attention is being paid to the issue.
Along with many other hon. Members, my focus has been narrowed, to some extent, by my experience of constituency cases. Very often, adoption cases arouse great emotion among the families concerned and among the wider media when they get into the public domain. I started life in the House with a difficult case that brought to a head issues of age bars and overseas adoption. The case was satisfactorily resolved through the intervention of the then Under-Secretary of State for Health, now the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng). The right hon. Gentleman intervened personally and resolved the case to the family's satisfaction and happiness.
More recently, my constituency has been the centre of attention in a high-profile adoption case. There have been weekly serials in The Mail on Sunday and a great deal of television attention, much of it very distressing. I do not wish to go into the pros and cons of that case because an independent inquiry has been set up. Indeed, it is partly with the help of the Minister and his officials that the inquiry is taking place, and it would be wrong of me to pass judgment on the rights and wrongs of the case. That case, along with others with which I and other right hon. and hon. Members have dealt, illustrates some of the problems in the process.
I can put my specific remarks in a more general context. The Government have produced a White Paper, based on the Cabinet Office report and the Prime Minister's personal intervention in the matter. All the feedback that I have had from the adopting community--the adopters, the professionals and the social workers--is very positive. It is felt that a lot of progress has been made and that many of the policy prescriptions that have been offered are extremely helpful.
We are in a very positive environment--the one cloud on the horizon is that we have been here before. As the Minister knows, the 1993 White Paper expressed--probably less well than the present one--many of the hopes for future legislation. However, that White Paper never became legislation. I sincerely hope that the current White Paper does not go the same way. The Minister is not the master of parliamentary business--none the less, the context is positive.
I wish to start with a general proposition. It might help to promote the ideas in the White Paper if a little more support were given to the role of the adopters and, as a separate group, the foster parents who work on a paid basis for local authorities. There is a clear and positive statement in the White Paper and the associated regulations as to the primacy of the child. That is absolutely right; the language is spot-on and none of us
There is an important omission, however. There is no sense in that document that adopters are valuable, valued and important. Indeed, if they do not come forward in greater numbers, it will not be possible to realise the objectives of the White Paper. It would be helpful to show a little more warmth and commitment to adopters as a group.
I make that point for two reasons. The first is that--unlike social workers, doctors or teachers--adopters are a scattered community. They are not a profession; they cannot express their frustration, lack of morale, problems, difficulties over bad publicity and so on. That is all the more reason for the Government to acknowledge publicly that they are an important part of the process.
Secondly, there is a problem of adopter recruitment. Two years ago, there was an enormous profusion of interest in adoption after several harrowing television programmes; 24,000 people expressed interest. Of course, many of those expressions were flippant or had not been thought through. Few of them ever bore fruit. That has never been fully explained to me, but it suggests a lack of receptiveness in the system.
The appeals process is absolutely crucial to the confidence of adopters. The Government have obviously given much thought to that issue. The White Paper contains a helpful passage--paragraph 6.23--that seems to represent a clear commitment to the appeals process. However, I have some concerns on the matter and some suggestions as to how the system might work.
Having seen some difficult cases, I think that there is a role for a system of independent appeals for adopters who have difficulties with the approval process; for birth parents, who are also important actors; and for third parties. I am thinking especially of the recent Klinsky case, in which a doctor had independent evidence that something was seriously remiss, wanted to be a whistleblower, but had no access to a suitable process. Appeals could encompass the concerns of all those stakeholders.
The starting point for discussion has to be the fact that most adoptions work extremely well and smoothly; about 95 per cent. of approvals occur without difficulty. However, the remaining 5 per cent. of cases often generate enormous bitterness and frustration. Because local authorities operate self-regulation systems, there is no outside appeal process so people turn to the law--as in the celebrated case to which I referred earlier.
As we know, the law is a cumbersome beast; it is slow and expensive. Adoption law is extremely complicated and requires expensive legal advice that people of ordinary means cannot afford. The legal process peters out, so people turn to the press and statements are made that compound the problems. The lack of an independent appeal process crystallises the difficulties.
Why does self-regulation not work? The problem is partly inherent in all such internal complaints systems. For example, despite all the good intentions, the police complaints procedure rarely produces satisfactory remedies, which is why the Home Secretary wants to make it more independent. There is an additional problem with adoption. I do not know whether the Minister will confirm this, but insurance is a particular problem. If a social services department admits liability, it blows its insurance cover. That serious technical problem prevents the openness that would be expected in an internal, self-regulating complaints process.
Such difficulties lead people to conclude that a proper, stand-alone independent appeals system should deal with the relatively small number of cases that produce a breakdown. I do not know how far the Minister has thought through the practical problems of operating such a system, but various suggestions have been made. The first suggestion is that the system should be broadly based and open to birth parents, adopters and third parties. An obvious requirement is that it should have a gatekeeper, so that frivolous complaints are not allowed and only serious investigations can take place. Clearly, there should be pre-selection, as with the ombudsman and similar schemes. The appeals need to be dealt with very quickly, otherwise the system would defeat the objective of speedy adoption--the key to the policy.
I do not know whether the Government have considered the suggestion that they will have to set up a body or a formal structure to deal with the ratification of the Hague convention--an issue that arises from the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999. That structure could provide a vehicle for an independent complaints appeals procedure. That is the main point that I want to make based on my own experience and discussions with the various adoption groups.
I am sure that the importance of speed is recognised in fact, it is stated explicitly in the White Paper but I want to make two specific points, the first of which is about infants. I understand that 2,200 children under the age of one are currently awaiting adoption, 770 of whom have waited for more than six months and 990 between two and six months--very young babies. Has any thought been given to creating a fast-track procedure for infants, as opposed to other categories of children?
My other question about speed relates to the text of the draft standards. The Government are clearly committed to six-month time horizons, making the process quicker. That is welcome, but how will they work? How will local authorities be required to report whether six months has been exceeded? Many of the emotive difficulties with inter-racial adoption are not about race, but about time periods. Everyone accepts that same-race placements are almost invariably best, but it is a matter of how quickly they can take place. The issue is very much one of speed and how time limits can be set and made meaningful.
I became involved in such problems in the first place because of overseas adoption. Apart from the difficulties of domestic adoption, we have a culture that is resistant to overseas adoption. For example, last year in this country, 350 such cases were approved; in France, it is 10
As I understand it, the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), will make the process easier. However, without something to facilitate overseas adoptions to ensure that the proper channels are used overseas and in the United Kingdom, such adoptions will not become easier, or, if they do, they will happen in a highly irregular manner. The recent internet case is a good example of people using irregular or inappropriate channels. If there were a proper system of accredited agencies or an official agency that was supported with at least its start-up costs, there would be a proper, recognised and regulated procedure. That would help to avoid abuse.