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Mr. Davis: That may be so in some cases, though it was not highlighted in the cases that I studied. One of our problems is the question of control. We must ask about the extent to which senior members of social services departments know what is happening, and one problem is that we have few statistics relating to the failure rate of the attempts to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. Such figures would be important. Much of what the House will do in the special Select Committee will be designed to find out what maximises the odds of a good outcome for the youngster. That is all that we can do, and if it sometimes means a bit of rough justice, that justice must favour the child. That is why paramountcy is so important.
I was about to give my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) some figures that I had received from the Adoption Forum. In 1999, of 2,200 looked-after babies under one year old, 200 were adopted, 930 had been in care for between two and six months, and 770 had been in care for longer. Most were in care for more than eight weeks, in other words. How likely is it that those children will return to their birth families? Only 930 were awaiting adoption, which leaves me wondering what happened to the rest of them.
Those are the type of figures that we must deal with. Not all of them relate to the question of returning to a family. Some of them relate to what is colloquially called "lost in care". That phrase refers to children who had not been properly tracked and were floundering in the system, but who were, of course, still being harmed while they floundered and lost precious parental love at an important time of their lives.
Social work specialists often argue that there are not enough adopters. Along with the reason mentioned by the hon. Member for Wakefield, that is the other main reason for delay. In my view, however, the argument that there are not enough adopters is flawed. First, a large proportion of adopters are turned down--my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden tells me that it is as much as 90 per cent. in some cases.
Secondly, we can learn from statistics going back decades. We are often told, in a comfortable way, that not many baby adoptions are available these days, because of contraception, abortion and changes in social attitudes. There were 20,000 adoptions a year in the 1960s, which implies 20,000 families of one sort or another at that time. It is hardly surprising that many families have withdrawn from the prospect of adoption. Prospective adopters must be prepared to submit themselves to lengthy, intensive and intrusive scrutiny of their habits, health, age, weight, race, class, attitudes, number of books read and you-name-it. Any of those things could disqualify them, and that is a deterrent, a sort of non-tariff barrier to adoption. Cases can be overplayed in some tabloids, but the simple fact is that if I were considering adopting, I should think hard about opening not just myself but my family to that scrutiny.
To repeat the point made by the hon. Member for Stockton, South, one of our strongest aims should be to fast-track younger children. That is how we shall bring that 58,000 down to a number that is tolerable rather than a shame on our nation. The national adoption register will help in that process; I commend Ministers for that.
The measure still includes provisions on race and religion. That is not necessarily sensible drafting. The question of the paramountcy of the lifetime advantage of the child ought to deal with such matters. As the hon. Member for Wakefield pointed out, when a child or siblings need to be placed with a family, we should pick the family who offer the best likelihood of success. Whether an Afro-Caribbean child is placed with an Afro-Caribbean family, a Muslim child with a Muslim family, or whatever the background, if there is a match, that should derive straight from the paramountcy consideration--it should not need to be provided for in the Bill.
I make that point because of my concern that a number of social workers interpreted some of the aims of the Children Act 1989 in ways that turned out to be unhelpful. In the special Select Committee, we might discuss the whole question of the interaction of such guidelines. Hard cases make bad law, but we do not want to find ourselves in a position in which a Muslim child of Turkish parents cannot be found a set of Muslim adoptive parents for love nor money. We must avoid that if we possibly can, especially--as I shall argue--if we want a large increase in the number of would-be parents.
That relates to a point about overall adoption strategy. I am not a great approver of President Clinton, but one has to admit that his initiative on that front was successful. He encouraged great diversity of effort, energy and imagination to increase the scope and the number of would-be adoptive parents. Startling outcomes have been achieved; for example, in three or four years, the number of adoptions in Idaho doubled. Along with the introduction of the Bill, we should look hard at the American experience for ways of extending the active search for parents, without silly rules.
On placement orders, I am rather a hawk on freeing orders. The courts have been hyper-cautious in their use of such orders. There is a simple reason for that, which sounds sensible: it is not a good idea for a child to be without a legal parent. However, given some of the parents that we are talking about, to have no legal parent
I shall not be in the Chamber to hear the Minister's response--I shall have to read it tomorrow--but will she tell the House what the subsequent relationship of birth parents will be? That is not clear in the measure. In some cases, birth parents continue to have contact with the child after adoption. Will that practice end under the measure or will there be a change? What is the Government's intention? In general, however, the provisions should lead to a good outcome.
It would have been useful if a stigma-free consent route had been clearly set out--I could find no detail of that in the measure. A problem that often faces single mothers is the feeling that they have failed if they sign away their child, even though the best thing would be to give the child the prospect of a better upbringing than they can manage. An awful emotional wrench can be made worse by the stigma of having to sign away a child. If such matters are not already covered by the Bill, perhaps they could be considered in the special Select Committee. We should explore that route.
I very much welcome the paramountcy of the child's life interest although I am worried about the interpretation. We need to think hard about the relevant guidelines. Some aspects of the Children Act reinforce social workers' obsession with birth families, so we shall need greater clarity about the meaning of paramountcy.
Much of the Bill will be dependent on regulations. The drafting is poor; even to my amateur eye, parts of it do not seem to agree with one another. Much scrutiny and consideration will be necessary. Like most Members, I carry as a scar the aftermath of the Child Support Agency, which went through the House as a largely bipartisan--or accepted--measure. The result of that bipartisan approach was that perhaps we did not scrutinise the legislation well enough.
I should hate this, once in a generation, important Bill to suffer the same fate, so I make this point to the Minister--it is not meant as point scoring: the process of challenge is important. If ever a Bill needed not to be timetabled, this is it, but if it has to be timetabled, please, please make that timetable generous so as to allow proper consideration. Will the Minister please review the matter halfway through the timetable? No one in the House will filibuster the Bill; I hope that everyone will give it proper support. Furthermore, as I probably shall not be a member of the special Committee, I make a plea for the affirmative resolution procedure on the guidance rather than the negative resolution procedure currently proposed.
My next two points do not relate directly to the Bill, but to its surrounding strategy and resources. The first is on funding. Several people have been generous in their comments on funding, but I think that it is inadequate. The US experience was that there was great expense initially, but it quickly got cheaper as children came out of the care system and those costs were saved. The measure offers a classic case for a limited period of ring-fenced funding--I am talking not of tens of millions but of hundreds of millions of pounds for one or two years. We must bear in mind the fact that we are talking not only about allowances or support, but about recruitment costs. Normally, social service departments assess recruitment costs alone at about £3,000 a child; for
Many of the problems thus hinge on the fact that adoption is the Cinderella of many social services departments. The youngest and the least-trained social workers are involved. It is important that we produce enough money for the measure in its first two or three years. The House does not often hear me talking about spending more money, so I shall make one point--as an aside--in self-defence: a cost-benefit analysis of bringing a high proportion of those 58,000 children out of the care system would undoubtedly show that value could be measured in many, many hundreds of millions of pounds. Homelessness, crime, prison sentences, drug dependency, unwanted young pregnancies--all those social ills are hugely expensive.