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Mr. Hinchliffe: I am grateful for the detailed way in which my hon. Friend is outlining the Bill's provisions, especially as they relate to special guardianship. Will there be a difference between a child who is placed under a care order on a long-term basis with foster parents and

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the arrangements under a special guardianship order? Will care reviews still take place and will local authorities continue to have a role?

Mr. Hutton: No. My understanding is that once the special guardianship order has been made, that is the end of the care order. The special guardians will be responsible for the child who is placed with them.

The order retains the basic legal link with the birth parents, unlike adoption. They will remain legally the child's parents, although their ability to exercise their parental responsibility will be limited. They will retain some basic rights, such as the right to consent or not to the child's adoption or placement for adoption. Unlike adoption orders, applications may be made to discharge or vary special guardianship orders, but only a limited list of people can apply, including the child's parents, again in restricted circumstances.

The White Paper set out that special guardians would have access to a full range of support services including, where appropriate, financial support, to help the placement succeed. That is reflected in the Bill. The introduction of the new order will provide an important new way of delivering legal permanence and security with a new family for children who cannot live with their birth parents. We look forward to hearing the views on our provisions in the special Select Committee hearings.

I realise that I have been speaking for a long time, but I am about to conclude my remarks. [Interruption.] I could continue. The hon. Member for West Derbyshire poses a challenge, to which I might respond.

The Bill is complex; it is a substantial piece of legislation on a matter that has generally attracted great interest and is of necessary importance. Comprehensive reform of adoption law is long overdue and will benefit thousands of society's most vulnerable children who, for far too long, have been let down by the care system. The Government are committed to just such modernisation and reform, and the introduction of the Bill demonstrates the strength of our commitment.

Our focus today is on improving adoption, but that does not mean we are ignoring the needs of young people who will remain in care--far from it. We will continue to invest new resources and effort in improving the outcomes for those children. Our ambitions for those young people need to be as high as our ambitions for children who will benefit from the Bill. All children in care, whether or not they can be found a new adoptive family, deserve the best opportunity to thrive and do well in life. The Government will continue to take action to see that that happens. In introducing the Bill, we have acknowledged that changes need to be made during its progress through the House. We have an open mind about the ways in which the Bill can be further improved and shall listen carefully to any serious suggestions about how that can be done.

Today we have the opportunity to do something that will prove to be of lasting value to thousands of children in future. We have the opportunity to say loudly and clearly that we want the best for them and the chance for them to belong and to succeed in life; we want them to have a second chance to grow up in a loving, secure family. I therefore hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading tonight.

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5.21 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): Adoption is a subject that naturally attracts more consensus in the House than many other subjects. We have said that we will give the Government full support for any measures that put the interests of the child at the centre of the adoption process.

Most Members in the House today will have had constituency cases of couples who have faced the heartache of trying to conceive, but who must then travel a long, difficult journey in trying to create a family by adoption. We tend to see cases in which things are not going well because, by definition, people turn to Members of Parliament when other routes have failed. For example, we see the birth parents, from whom the child has been separated against their will; other members of the family; good neighbours who step in to take a child when something has gone wrong in the birth family; and adoptees who are still searching for their birth families.

We are under no illusion that the system needs to be overhauled, but hon. Members who have had a chance to get the Library brief--currently available only by e-mail--will know that, curiously, ever since 1926, we come round to reforming adoption legislation once a generation. The group whom, unfortunately, we rarely see and to whom my heart goes out today, is the vast number of children who languish in care, longing for permanence and a family to belong to. Unnecessary bureaucratic delay means that they wait too long for their own good, which is why we want all children in care to have access to an outside body, such as a charity, Church organisation or family to enable them to experience the full range of cultural values in society. If we want children to play a full part in society, they must be given something more than the limited cultural ethos of the care environment.

The state has not proved to be a good corporate parent and we must all share responsibility for failing many children. From the outset, Conservative Members have said that we want to play a constructive role in the expedient introduction of legislation that will improve that situation. However, we cannot let this legislative stage pass without placing on the record the fact that the delay is partly of the Government's making. It is not just me saying that; the Library brief opens with a factual statement and says:

The best that the Government offered was a review of the present system.

The catalyst for change was the desperate Waterhouse report, which, for those of us who had to read it, revealed more clearly than ever before how vulnerable children are in care and how urgently we need to act to protect them better.

The Opposition's response was to establish a Conservative commission on adoption and fostering, to which I pay tribute for the help that it has given me in preparing my speech. The commission was chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) who, I expect, will make an important contribution to the debate. Some time later, in response, the Prime Minister undertook a review, thereby signalling his personal interest in, and responsibility for, the matter.

Co-incidentally, we were debating the relevant clauses on adoption and fostering in the Care Standards Bill at precisely the moment that the Prime Minister published

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the conclusions of his review. In a spirit of co-operation, I tabled a new clause to that Bill on Report, which would have given the Prime Minister what he wanted--a national adoption register and standard eligibility criteria for adoption. The clause was rejected on 12 July on the ground that the Government would introduce their own adoption Bill in the Queen's Speech.

However, to the great disappointment of all of us who wanted adoption law reformed, the delayed Queen's Speech in December contained no adoption Bill. Foxhunting was there, but not adoption. History will record that choice for posterity. As the Adoption Forum observed:

Mr. Hinchliffe: We usually have a consensus and a non-political debate on issues relating to children. I am sad that the hon. Lady has chosen to make such cheap points. I could respond with a cheap point about the Government whom she supported being in power for 18 years and never bringing a Bill on adoption before the House, as the present Government are doing.

Mrs. Spelman: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not need reminding that the Conservative Government had their own White Paper, a comprehensive consultative procedure and a draft Bill, which, as the Minister pointed out, his Bill closely mirrors. Therein lies the consensus. Governments past and present have worked together to produce legislation that will bring about change.

Liz Blackman (Erewash): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Spelman: No. We have dealt with that point.

When I had the chance to introduce legislation by coming sixth in the ballot of private Members' Bills, small wonder that I chose adoption as the subject. I even went so far as to offer my slot to the Government to introduce their Bill. My hope was to embarrass the Government into action, and the Bill today is proof that we succeeded. I had some help from the Prime Minister who, under pressure from my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), said on 17 January that legislation would be introduced during this Session, when it was patently obvious that there was no room for it.

Here we are, on the eve of a general election, with a Bill containing more than 100 clauses, which is, by the Minister's own admission to the all-party parliamentary group on adoption, "a first draft". He also said that

The scramble at the Department to produce the Bill and get the Prime Minister off the hook is apparent from the Minister saying that the Government will have to table a number of amendments to correct their own draft. [Interruption.] The Minister says, "Oh dear."

In one respect, we are pleased that common sense has prevailed. The motion on the Order Paper today indicates that the Government anticipate that at least two months will be needed for a special Select Committee to scrutinise the Bill properly. We commend that. Those of us who were

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involved in the Food Standards Bill know that it benefited from detailed scrutiny in a special Select Committee. However, one wonders about the Government's sincerity, as we know full well that the Prime Minister is striving hard to hold a general election on 3 May.

I have made the point that adoption was not a Government priority. It will not have escaped the attention of hon. Members that the timing of Second Reading is just a touch malign for the hon. Member who will present a private Member's Bill on the same subject in four days' time.

We must ask whether, in preparing the Bill, the Government correctly defined the problem of adoption. Problem definition is not the Government's strong point, as we saw with the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill. Although we all want to reduce the prevalence of smoking, it is not obvious that banning tobacco advertising will succeed in that aim without closing the floodgates on smuggled cigarettes, which the Bill failed to do.

In respect of adoption, I urge the Minister to read the case studies in a document produced by the North American Connection adoptive family support group. Although its focus is on difficulties with intercountry adoption, it correctly diagnoses one reason why people resort to overseas adoption. As it states, in this country, there is

One particularly bad case--case C--in the report, which I recommend that the Minister reads before work starts in the special Select Committee, states:

In his opening remarks, the Minister said that there was not a great deal of evidence of political correctness. Unfortunately, however, hon. Members know that such cases are all to often brought to us. For the record, I shall read another case study from this very interesting document.

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