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Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I welcome the measures to speed up adoption procedures, but may I draw the Minister's attention to a danger? The magic six-months point at which everything is triggered may be seen as a threat by local authorities. Indeed, it should be seen as a threat. It is most important for authorities not to have an incentive to "churn" children when about five and a half months have passed, and then begin the process all over again when the children return to care.

Mr. Hutton: I entirely agree, but we do not see the six-months time scale as a threat. We think that it will support good decision making by local authorities. If there was any sign that authorities were behaving in the way described by the hon. Gentleman, it would of course be a serious matter. We expect authorities to apply proper child care procedures and practices to all decision making.

I assume that the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that after five and a half months a child should no longer be considered to be in care, and should be reunited, perhaps inappropriately, with other persons. That would be unsafe and unsound, and the social services inspectorate--and I--would be very concerned. I think, however, that we

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will be able to deal with such issues by means of the effective monitoring arrangements that we wish to introduce.

The new special guardianship orders will provide a more legally secure permanent family than can be delivered through foster care or residence orders. That will apply particularly to children who do not want to sever all legal ties with their birth families.

In addition to all that, the Bill thoroughly overhauls and modernises the legal framework for adoption in England and Wales. It replaces the existing Adoption Act 1976 and consolidates the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999. It also includes important changes to the legal process of placing a child for adoption, and to adoption itself. It builds on the work done in the adoption law review in the early 1990s and on important proposals in the draft adoption Bill prepared by the last Administration in 1996, which was endorsed by both major parties and published for consultation.

The Bill represents a huge step forward in making the adoption system fairer and more efficient. Although we want to maintain the momentum for reform, the Government are also conscious of the need to maintain the widest possible consensus on the direction of change. We do not have the chance to legislate on this subject very often--once in a generation, perhaps--so it is vital for us to get it right.

That is why we are building on the consultation on the 1996 Bill; that is why we consulted on the new proposals in the Prime Minister's adoption review, which led to our White Paper; and that is why we now propose that the Bill be referred to a special Select Committee, so that there will be ample opportunity for proper scrutiny of the new measures as well as the fullest possible consultation with outside interests and organisations.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): One of the most disturbing aspects, which the Minister mentioned at the outset, is the frequency with which young people in care are "churned" around in the fostering system. The Minister has not so far mentioned any way of dealing with the problem; there may be no such mechanism in the Bill. Will the Minister tell us how he hopes to minimise the damage that must be caused to already damaged children by the process of "churning" and short stays in foster care?

Mr. Hutton: I shall certainly explain to the right hon. Gentleman how we intend to do that. Perhaps it would be appropriate for me to write to him with specific details.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that the Bill's main focus is on adoption. The improvements that we seek to make in the fostering service form a substantial part of the quality protects initiative that we launched in 1998, which became effective in 1999. For the first time, we set a target for reducing the number of avoidable placements to fewer than three a year. We are making progress, and I hope that later in the year we shall be able to publish new figures showing that we are on track to meet the target. It is desperately important for us to do so.

The Bill is only part of the programme of wider reforms that we seek to introduce. We have always made it clear that, as an important part of the work that we need to do to improve children's social services, we must focus on the practice of child care in local authorities throughout the country. That is what the quality protects initiative

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seeks to achieve. We have also--crucially--tried a number of initiatives for the recruitment and employment of more foster carers. That will be a fundamental part of reducing avoidable and unnecessary changes in foster care placements. In 1997, there were about 28,000 foster carers in England. That figure has risen to about 32,000 and, although we need to do much more--we need many more carers--we are, I hope, heading in the right general direction.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I have pressed the Minister on this matter for some time. I believe that he is right to go down what is effectively the special Committee route: the proposal is for the Bill to be committed to a Select Committee. However, in practical terms, it is possible that the election will intervene. I address my question to him and to those on the Conservative Front Bench. Will a future Government of either persuasion ensure that the Select Committee stage is picked up immediately on return after an election?

Mr. Hutton: There are some things that I can say and some that I cannot.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): The Minister has come over all shy.

Mr. Hutton: I am not trying to be shy. It is a serious point. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) for raising it. He is a former Whip, so he knows that there is a system--a magical, unknown system--whereby those things are resolved. I am not privy to any of the secret workings of this place. I am sure that a way will be found--I hope that it will be found--to maintain the momentum that we are setting in train. If my party is re-elected, we will certainly seek to make further progress with the legislation.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): My hon. Friend has outlined one of the areas that can cause delays in the process, with children being moved back and forth between foster homes, but there is another: attempts to reintegrate a child into its own family. During the consultation, will he liaise with those representing natural parents? There needs to be a balance between the natural parent who may wish a child to come back home and the needs of the child. Guidance needs to be offered to social workers about the point at which they should give up trying to integrate a child back into its natural home and look at the future of that child instead.

Mr. Hutton: I agree with my hon. Friend. These are difficult and sensitive issues. We are trying to be fair both to families and to children in care who have been let down by the way in which the system operates and who, as I have said, are denied the opportunity to grow up in a loving and secure family. That is not acceptable. There is an opportunity for us to look at ways in which to reinforce good child care practice and good social work practice in those areas. I hope that the social care institute, the creation of which we announced recently, might be able to look at issues to do with precisely the point that my hon. Friend has raised. Having said all that, we are trying to maintain the right balance. It is desperately important

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that we keep the children at the top of our list of priorities. That is not how the system works at the moment, but it is how it must work in future.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that clauses 8 and 9 cover the regulation of adoption agencies and the independent review of determinations made. Can he confirm this afternoon that the regulations in question will be subject to the affirmative procedure, so that there is a full opportunity for the House to debate them? Alternatively, if that is not possible or the preferred option of the Government, can he confirm that a draft of the regulations will be available to hon. Members before the passage of the Bill?

Mr. Hutton: It would be a very brave Minister who made the latter pledge. We are not planning any surprises. We have no tricks up our sleeve. We want to consult fully not only with hon. Members, but with outside organisations on the best way to develop the regulations that we have in mind. We have an open mind. I think that the Bill as it is currently drafted envisages the negative resolution procedure for regulations under the clauses, but if the hon. Gentleman, those on the Conservative Front Bench or others outside can make a convincing case as to why there should be a different procedure, we genuinely have an open mind. As I said, we want to proceed with the widest possible consensus in all these areas.

Following the hon. Gentleman's point, I stress that we accept that further work needs to be done on the Bill. I want to say a few words about some specific aspects that fall into that category in a minute. We want to hear if additional changes and improvements should be made to ensure that we produce the best possible Bill. That is a duty that we owe future generations of looked-after children.

I come to the specific details of the Bill. Clause 1 is a key overarching provision. As we made clear in the White Paper, the Government believe that adoption is first and foremost a service for children, and the child's interest and welfare should be at the centre of the adoption process. The Bill makes the child's welfare in childhood and later the paramount consideration for a court or adoption agency making any decision relating to the adoption of a child. That brings adoption legislation into line with the Children Act 1989.

Clause 1 also provides the court or the agency with a welfare check list of issues that it must consider in determining the child's welfare. The issues include the child's wishes and views, according to his age and understanding; the child's needs, age, sex, background and any other relevant characteristics; the impact on the child of being adopted--of becoming a member of a new family and leaving an old one--and any risk of harm to the child.

The Bill makes the child's welfare the paramount consideration in all decisions, including whether to dispense with birth parents consent to the adoption of their child. That is a change from the current position. The courts will be explicitly obliged to consider the impact on the child of ceasing to be a member of his birth family and the change in his relationship with that family that adoption would inevitably involve. The courts will

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consider each case on its merits, applying clause 1 and having regard to article 8 of the convention and Strasbourg case law. However, we believe that it is right that the focus of that decision should be on the child's welfare. The court may make an adoption order only when it considers that it would be better for the child than making no order. Again, that is in line with Children Act principles.

The Government are determined to bear down on harmful delays in the adoption process. Clause 1 also obliges courts and adoption agencies to bear in mind at all times that, in general, delay in making a decision is likely to prejudice the child's welfare.

In placing a child for adoption, agencies must also give due consideration to the child's religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background. Taken with the provisions on avoiding delay, that gives effect to the policy that we set out in the national adoption standards--that the adoptive placement of choice for a child is one that reflects their birth heritage, provided that one can be found without unnecessary or harmful delay.

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