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7.56 pm

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme): First, I apologise for not being present at the beginning of the debate. I was whipped off by the Whips to serve on a Committee considering a statutory instrument. It is a great pleasure to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). I know that he has worked long and hard to improve the status of children in care and up for adoption, and for this House to give more priority to taking action to improve the adoption system.

The Bill is yet another step taken by this Labour Government along the long road to improving the lives of all our children. Only those children who, for whatever reason, are no longer able to live with their parents can know the feelings of hurt, rejection and bewilderment of being placed in care. To be adopted, to be wanted, can give them a second chance in their young lives and a real sense of their own worth.

The Bill sets out to deal fairly with all the people and organisations involved with the best interests of the child--be they birth parents, adopting parents, pre-adopting families, voluntary agencies, social workers or the courts. The over-arching need of the welfare of the child is at the heart of the Bill. For far too long, we have lacked permanence and a clear policy on adoption. That has led to the wide variation in local authority standards that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

The Bill will provide a strong and clear basis on which to consider a stable future for some of our most needy children. That, linked to the Government's commitment to taking children out of poverty and easing the stress on families with programmes such as sure start and quality protects, together with the work of the social exclusion unit, should help to keep families together. Prevention is far better than cure.

There is much to welcome in the Bill. A national register has long been needed and should solve problems such as those in a case about which I recently heard. A couple had been waiting three years to adopt a child whose nationality rarely features in adoption cases. At long last, they adopted the child whom they had wanted for so long. Within five months, they received a phone call from another area of the country asking them please to adopt twin boys of the nationality in question. Those twin boys had been in care all their lives and it had not been possible to find somebody suitable to take them together. That should never have happened. They were prepared to take on the twin boys, but were told that they could not do so because they had adopted the previous child more recently than six months ago. I have no way of knowing whether the boys are still in care.

The couple also faced significant costs when they tried in their desperation to adopt from their country of origin. They had been vetted for adoption locally, but when they

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approached the local authority and explained that they could no longer wait for a suitable child and wanted to adopt from another country, they had to pay another fee of £2,000 or £3,000. Application to the country of origin seems no reason for having two lots of vetting. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), will examine the problem and consider the need for an international agreement in respect of children who are suitable for adoption in this country.

The question of keeping in touch with the wider family of children put out for adoption is a thorny one, as the hon. Member for Canterbury explained. I would welcome stronger guidelines, as members of a child's wider family, such as grandparents, aunts or uncles, often give strong support to try to prevent him or her from going into care. When I first came to the House--it now seems a long time ago--my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Sir R. Powell) spoke about grandparents' rights, and a grandmother rang me to tell me about her problems regarding adoption. She said that she was virtually looking after her daughter's child. She gave him his breakfast and looked after him when he came home from school, and he also slept at her home, but her daughter had a new boy friend who had decided that he should go into care. The decision was that the grandmother was to have nothing to do with the child, who was to be sent into care and put up for adoption. She had absolutely no rights. When she suggested that she should adopt the child, she was told that she was too old to do so. In any case, the daughter would not agree to such a decision because her boy friend would not allow it. It seems to me that the Bill should tackle such problems.

Another case has been brought to my attention in which two children whose parents were killed in a car crash were immediately looked after by their grandparents. They had little money, however, and none was given immediately by the local authority to help them to care for the children. They had to buy new school uniforms, as the children were changing schools, but had very little money to do so. When they approached the local authority, it took some time to provide financial assistance, as the children were not being fostered and were not up for adoption. Of course, the local authority had the money to give to the grandparents, who wanted to adopt the children because they had no legal responsibility for them. However, the grandparents desperately needed a right to instant financial help while the process was under way.

Many children are so severely damaged that it will be a very long time before they can be considered for adoption. I remember visiting a voluntary organisation in Shropshire, which was run by Madge Bray and which cared for badly damaged children. Such care cost a lot of money and local authorities could afford to provide it to one or two children at most. It would have taken a long time even to stabilise the children whom I met. I spoke to some of the very caring social workers who looked after them and we discussed many of their problems, which were confidential and obviously cannot be repeated here.

The Bill should take into account children who cannot go into care. Positive action is needed, and the voluntary organisations that care for such children must be listened to. They need strong rights to decide when the children can be brought forward for fostering or put into care. We cannot judge all children who are covered by the Bill as being ready for adoption.

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We are considering yet another Bill from a Government who genuinely care for children. I look forward to seeing it progress swiftly through the House, although the timing does not matter. Whatever happens, it will have been introduced. Yes, we would have liked it to have been introduced many years ago, but it has now been provided by this caring Labour Government. The sooner it is enacted, the better.

8.5 pm

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Newcastle-under- Lyme (Mrs. Golding). I understand that she was one of the co-founding chairmen of the all-party adoption group. If we have just heard her last speech in the House, we shall be all the sadder in the future when she is no longer here.

I want to raise a couple of issues that have been brought to my attention by constituents. I should like to give an overall welcome to the Bill, although I want also to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). Without any doubt, it was she who ensured that the Bill was brought before us. It is perhaps a coincidence--I put it no more strongly than that--that no adoption Bill was mentioned in the Gracious Speech, which set out the legislative programme. Furthermore, no such Bill was mentioned before my hon. Friend did especially well in the ballot for private Members' Bills. This Bill then somehow materialised, and she deserves credit for shaming the Government into introducing it. It is some coincidence--we all know that coincidences happen in this place--that my hon. Friend's substantive Bill is scheduled for debate on Friday, while the Government have timed Second Reading for today.

A number of hon. Members have pointed out that councils in England look after approximately 58,000 children at any time. Below that headline figure, however, many other facts form the true picture, although some of them are unimportant in themselves. Citing only the 58,000 figure does not provide a proper picture, especially as 40 per cent. of looked-after children return home after less than eight weeks. More than 28,000 of the children looked after in the year up to 31 March 1999--about half of all those who were in care at any one time--had been in care continuously for more than two years. These are some of the other statistics: almost 12,000 children have been looked after for five years or more; and by the time a child has been looked after for 18 months, he or she has an 80 per cent. chance of remaining in care for four years or more.

I pay tribute to the wonderful foster and adoptive parents who give so many children a fresh start or even a glimpse of what a happy family means. One such person came to my advice surgery on Friday. He and his wife had fostered many children during a number of years. Towards the end of their time of fostering, however, a vindictive child made an allegation against them that put a cloud over them and all the wonderful work that they had done. It is a matter of some regret that the social services department took up seriously a charge that was made maliciously, although I understand why it did so, and that a cloud hangs over the family as a consequence. I am not sure whether there is a way of avoiding such

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problems. Perhaps social services should be just a little more supportive to foster parents, especially when a challenge turns out to be vindictive.

Several hon. Members have pointed out that the Bill follows Mr. Justice Waterhouse's report, "Lost in Care". It originated from a report that was prepared on Clwyd county council by John Gillings, former director of social services for Derbyshire. The Gillings report could not be published for legal reasons.

We often hear about social services getting it wrong; we never hear about the times when they get it right, because they are taken for granted. Social services getting it wrong makes headlines in national newspapers. It is right to hold inquiries when matters go wrong, but we should recognise that social services operate under tough conditions. Some of the families with whom they come into contact must make them wary when placing children for foster care. However, they may also be prejudiced when they come across people with strong views, perhaps middle-class views, which they do not believe to be right.

Strangely, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under- Lyme raised a point that I want to develop: the role of grandparents. I believe that grandparents sometimes suffer, and I have two cases that I want to share. Those who foster children who are not relatives rightly receive a package of financial assistance. It may include: a weekly allowance of between £55 and £112; birthday allowances to pay for presents and a party; a clothing and school uniform allowance that covers a winter coat and shoes; and a holiday allowance to take the children on holiday or to cover school trips. Some local authorities provide a settling-in bursary and a travel allowance to take the child for family contact. If the child has particular behavioural problems, a further allowance may be granted. That is right and proper.

However, if the child is a relative, the carers receive only child benefit. If they have a small occupational pension, the grandchildren for whom they care may not even receive free school meals.

A retired senior police officer in my constituency has taken on the care of his grandchild. He received a letter from Derby city council, which stated:

Another letter stated:

child A. I shall not use the child's name because I do not want to identify her. In January 1999, I wrote to the Minister of State who opened the debate. In a letter, he admitted:

I wonder who provides the better care and who is likely to give better protection.

Child A is one of two children. Her sister J has had to remain in the care of Derby city council because the grandparents cannot cope with two traumatised children. She is entitled to full financial support. When she is old enough, she will be able to go on school trips and have a new school uniform while her older sister might not. Is that fair? Would any ordinary parent want that?

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The grandparents sent me a letter, which states:

I understand why the Minister has rejected that suggestion, but I want to put it on record in case the Bill does not work or go far enough.

The letter continues:

The Minister rejected that suggestion earlier, but perhaps we should keep it in the back of our minds. Should the Government's proposals prove less successful than we hope, we could reconsider that method of spreading best practice.

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