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6.52 pm

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): It is a pleasure and privilege to follow the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), who is the new chairman of the all-party group on adoption. I am the group's treasurer, which may explain why it has no money.

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A number of right hon. and hon. Members have talked about giving the Bill a cautious welcome; I shall give it an uncautious welcome. It is an extraordinarily important Bill which, as the Minister said, comes once in a generation. I have objections to the Bill's timing--I would have liked it to come forward earlier. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). If her private Member's Bill, down for debate this week, helped to provoke the Minister--good. I know what it is like in Whitehall. As the Minister pointed out, I have been a Whip and I know that it is difficult to get Bills into the system, so if my hon. Friend helped in the process, that is wonderful because it means that we have a Bill that comes once in a generation, and that is worth having.

We can all pick holes in the Bill. I could pick a number of holes in the drafting--parts of it do not agree with other parts, but that will be sorted out, one hopes, in the special Select Committee. I also have some arguments about strategy, but they are not so much iron-clad as probing. Whatever one thinks of the detail, if the 58,000 children in care knew about the Bill, they would probably all be cheering, if not for themselves then for their successors.

The Bill's success will rely on resolving a number of major problems--almost paradoxes--of children in care. "In care" is a lovely phrase--it sounds warm, comfortable and beneficial. In practice, for most children, going into care is an awful prospect. We should recognise that. Indeed, the legislation was triggered, at least in one respect, by the Waterhouse report on abuse by paedophiles in north Wales. We know that that was not unique--there have been other organised abuse rings in other homes. We also know of non-sexual abuses such as pindown, and related issues. The fact is that vulnerable youngsters sometimes attract evil people, and we have to protect them.

This tale of neglect varies enormously according to the local authority. The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) said that most social workers do a fabulous job of looking after the children, and others, in their care. However, this sector is often the Cinderella of social work. It is underfunded and under-resourced, and often the youngest and least experienced social workers do the job. What is more, they are often poorly controlled, resulting in many poor outcomes. For example, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden said, a lot of children are moved many times. That leads to a very poor outcome for them.

The starkest example that I have come across was the case a couple of years ago of Aliyah Ismail, the 13-year-old child who died from a drugs overdose, having taken up prostitution to feed her habit. That happened while she was in care. There is no excuse for that. There is even less excuse for the fact that that young child had been moved between homes 60 times in her life.

When I wrote about that sort of issue, I received a number of letters from people such as directors of social services departments and professors. They contained many attacks and might as well have been signed "Disgusted of Islington" in green ink. They said that the

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situation was not intentional and the social workers were not the ones making the moves. That was not true, as it happened, but that does not matter--we, as a society, have a duty of care to these children. They are our responsibility. The way that we look after our most vulnerable members is the acid test of a civilised society.

More generally--the Minister touched on this point--typical youngsters in care face a disproportionate prospect of homelessness, crime, jail and drugs dependency and, for girls, pregnancy. Some 0.5 per cent. of the country's population is in care. They make up 22 per cent. of the prison population, and 39 per cent. of those prisoners are under 21. One in three of the young people sleeping rough in London has come out of the care system, and one in four children in care over 13 does not attend school, so "in care" is at best a paradox and at worst a singular misnomer.

This is not due simply to the failure of the individual social service departments and the social workers. As the chairman of the all-party group on adoption, the hon. Member for Stockton, South said, institutions cannot replace families. Cold charity, however well intended, cannot replace the stable, loving homes that adoption provides. That is why adoption, rather than council care, is the preferred option and, quite rightly, the main thrust of the Bill.

The second problem, or paradox, relating to children in care is that the longer youngsters are in care, the harder it is to get them out of care. It is very simple, and an obvious characteristic. The absence of parental love is psychologically damaging and destabilising. Studies have been made of children in their teens who continue in the care system and those who are adopted in their early teens--the most difficult group. They show clearly that all of them, pretty much, have some degree of psychological damage. Those who are adopted at that point are not instantly cured--we should not kid ourselves about that--but, generally, they stabilise and their decline is arrested.

Those who stay in care, on the other hand, become worse. Statistics mean nothing, but they are about 50 per cent. worse off in terms of the conditions that they suffer from. We, and the Government, must break that vicious circle. Difficult children, often from cruel backgrounds, go into care, the very fact of which makes them more difficult and harder to place. The longer that goes on, the worse it all becomes.

The test of the Bill will lie in whether it can break those problems by favouring adoption. We know that adoption leads to better results. Adopted children, when they are adopted young, enjoy outcomes as good as or better than those for children from natural families. There is a 20 per cent. failure rate, as measured by break ups, but that failure rate is near zero among the under-fives, and nearer 50 per cent. for the over-10s.

Speed therefore matters more than precision, particularly in the selection of parents. Speed matters more than almost anything. I shall offer a crude example of a decision that social workers almost never have to make, but if one had to choose between having an imperfect parent quickly and a perfect one two or three years down the line, I would go for the former. After all, I am an imperfect parent myself, as I am sure my children would agree.

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Much lip service is paid to that point about speed. In her response to the Bill, Moira Gibb, the president of the Association of Directors of Social Services, said:

That is just plumb wrong. We should not have to choose between the two groups, but, as the hon. Member for Stockton, South said, we should fast-track children before they are too long in care. We can do most to rescue those children from the problem before us.

Mr. Brazier: My right hon. Friend makes such a powerful case that I am embarrassed to interrupt him. Surely, however, we must put a stop to endless statements by people such as Moira Gibb about the age profile of children in care. We should be discussing the age profile of children at the time they came into care, which, in many cases, was four, five or six years earlier.

Mr. Davis: My hon. Friend is right. I shall cite for him some statistics about young children, for which I am grateful to the Adoption Forum.

Mr. Hinchliffe: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way first?

Mr. Davis: Of course.

Mr. Hinchliffe: The right hon. Gentleman has not yet mentioned the process of returning a child from care to his or her natural family. Indeed, that issue seems to have been sketched over generally in this debate. As one who worked in social services, I can say that one of the most difficult decisions to take is whether to place a child back in his or her natural family environment. That is where the skill of the job comes in. Frankly, it is easier to have a child adopted than to face some of the tasks involved in returning a child to his or her natural family and to work with and support that family. Where does the right hon. Gentleman think the balance lies between those two things?

Mr. Davis: The hon. Gentleman is drawing me off to one side. One cannot deal with that point with statistics. One can only consider cases, and in those that I have examined, several futile attempts were made to reconstitute damaged families. In some cases, that went so far that it constituted institutional cruelty to the children involved as attempts were made to push families back together. They were pushed back into families in which they had been damaged--physically, in some cases--and they went back and forward like yo-yos between various homes. All that probably made it impossible for the children involved ever to form a serious bond with an adult.

Often, such action is taken with the best of intentions. Perhaps a young social worker wants to reconstitute a family and is challenged by the idea of doing so. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is tough to do that, but it is, in many cases, so tough that it is impossible. The hon. Gentleman was also right to say that that is one cause for the delays about which we have spoken.

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