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Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Minister of Agriculture said a number of times last week that briefings for MPs were available in the Government and Opposition Whips Offices, but, despite having made extensive inquiries on several matters of concern to constituents who need urgent answers, we have not received them. I would be grateful if you could urge the Minister to make those briefings available to Members.

Mr. Speaker: I will look into the matter for the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have raised on several occasions the need for a parliamentary hotline. We must have someone in the Ministry of Agriculture whom we can contact with urgent constituency cases to make sure

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that they are looked into. I raised the matter three weeks ago, but there is still no contact in the Ministry. That simply is not good enough.

Mr. Speaker: Once again, I will look into the matter and get back to both hon. Members.

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Orders of the Day

Adoption and Children Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

4.30 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has written to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) to express his apologies for being unable to be present due to a long-standing constituency engagement.

The Bill represents probably the most radical overhaul of adoption law for 25 years. It is long overdue. By common consent, the current legislation is considered to be outmoded, out of date and unsuitable for the kind of adoption service that we need today. As a result, it is failing to meet the needs of children and families and, therefore, the needs of society as a whole. The need to recast both the law and the practice of adoption so that they better serve the interests of children is clear and obvious. The Adoption Act 1976 is based on legislation dating back to 1958 and it is not consistent with the Children Act 1989. There is an overwhelming case for bringing the framework of legislation up to date. That is precisely what the Bill seeks to achieve.

Adoption legislation is vital to our society because children get only one chance to grow up. As every Member of the House knows, the opportunity to grow up in a stable and loving family environment has often been denied to children in care who, for one reason or another, cannot live with their birth families. The children are not the only ones to have lost out as a result--society as a whole has paid a heavy price for that failure.

At any one time, local councils look after almost 58,000 young people, seven in 10 of whom leave care at 16 without an educational qualification of any sort. Almost four in 10 male prisoners under the age of 21 have been looked after at some stage in their lives and 25 per cent. of the people sleeping rough on the streets of London have also been in care. That is a failure not of the children in care, but of the system of care. We in the House must put such failures right.

Those children, perhaps above all others, need the safety, stability and security of a permanent new family. They need that stability as quickly as is humanly possible, but that is not what happens at present. Children remain in the care system far longer than they should. More than 28,000 children have been in care continuously for more than two years. Too often, despite the best intentions of all involved, they are passed from pillar to post.

Nearly one looked-after child in five has three or more placements in a year. Some have six or more. For those children, the care system frequently fails to provide the stability that they need to build a successful future. They need a better chance in life. They deserve a better deal. Today, with this Bill, we are laying the foundations for a better future for thousands of young people in care.

The Government firmly believe that adoption can often be the best solution for children in care who are unable to return to their birth families. Too often, it has been

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considered to be a last resort when it should have been considered as a first resort. In some council areas, 10 per cent. or more of looked-after children are adopted every year. In others, the figure is less than 1 per cent. Those wide discrepancies in performance are unacceptable and unjust.

Overall, we know that the existing law and practice, including the practice in the courts, can be slow, cumbersome and unfair as a result. Of course, the safety of every child should be of paramount concern, but, on average, children wait nearly a year and a half before it is even decided that adoption is best for them. Even after a decision is taken that they should be adopted, they wait longer still. Overall, the average time taken to adopt a looked-after child is more than three years, which is an eternity in a child's eyes.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): The Minister has just given some disturbing figures about the variation between local authorities dealing with adoption. Does the Bill give the power of adoption to local authorities? One of my constituents has said that, because of the great differences between local authorities, it may be better for a national agency to deal with adoption.

Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we seriously considered that proposition in the report produced last July by the performance and innovation unit. The idea has been knocking around for some time. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his constituent will understand that the adoption and fostering services, which are closely linked, are also umbilically connected to the wider child protection agenda, for which local authorities rightly have the principal legal responsibility in England and Wales. If we were to erect a barrier between local authorities' child protection functions and their adoption and fostering functions, that would not be a terribly sensible way to proceed. We have certainly considered the proposition, but we have discounted it as a way forward.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman realises from my remarks that I find the discrepancy and wide variation in performance completely unacceptable. However, I do not think that the problem can be solved by creating a new agency. We have tools at our disposal to improve the performance of local authorities. I shall later refer to the new default powers in the Bill to address the problem of local authorities that fail to provide an effective and proper adoption service. We do not currently have such powers.

People who want to adopt children from the care system need a better deal as well. There is a shortage of adoptive parents, but the system sometimes deters people from applying to adopt. It is slow, intrusive and sometimes inappropriate. I am aware of cases in which potential adopters have been told that they cannot adopt because they are too old or, in one case, because they were too middle class. Such blanket bans fail to put the needs of children first. Families who adopt children overwhelmingly do a brilliant job for them. It is not an easy job, because many of the children are not easy. They and their adoptive parents deserve more support.

Our adoption White Paper, published last December, set out an ambitious programme to tackle these related problems, to encourage greater use of adoption, to deliver

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at least a 40 per cent. increase in the number of looked-after children who are adopted, to transform adoption services and to put the interests of children at the centre of the adoption process. The Bill will play an essential part in underpinning the programme that we set out in the White Paper.

First, it will put the needs of the child at the centre of the adoption process by aligning adoption law with the Children Act 1989 to make the child's welfare the paramount consideration in all decisions to do with adoption.

Secondly, it will help to encourage more people successfully to adopt looked-after children by ensuring that the support they need is available. There will be a clearer duty on local authorities to make arrangements to provide an adoption support service, and a new right to an assessment for new adoptive families, as promised in the White Paper.

Thirdly, the Bill will also support our efforts to build confidence in the adoption process, and encourage more people to come forward to adopt, by enabling the Secretary of State to establish an independent review mechanism for applicants who consider that they are being turned down unfairly. Many of those who commented on the performance and innovation unit report identified that as a key and pressing issue. Clause 9 will address those concerns.

Fourthly, the Bill will support our efforts to cut harmful delays in the adoption process. We have already set out challenging time targets for decision making for children and for the adoption application process in our draft national adoption standards, which were published alongside the White Paper. The Bill makes provision for the Secretary of State to establish a new national adoption register to reduce delay for adopters and children waiting to be adopted. It also includes measures requiring courts to draw up timetables for adoption cases, to help to cut delays in the legal process.

Finally, as we promised in the White Paper, the Bill introduces a new special guardianship order--

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