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9.39 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): It gives me great pleasure to bring this debate to a close. I apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and to hon. Members for my earlier absence. I apologised to the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) in case I missed her speech. My absence was unavoidable; I shall explain it shortly.

First, I compliment the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) on an extremely competent and able resume of our debate, which was largely well informed and wide ranging. The hon. Gentleman's contribution leads to me to conclude that he will enjoy a long and successful sojourn on the Opposition Front Bench, and I wish him all the best. His speech contrasted sharply with that of the hon. Member for Meriden, but I shall deal with some of her comments later.

We all acknowledge the overwhelming need to legislate on adoption and I am grateful to hon. Members for their keen interest in, and contributions to, our debate. I shall try to respond to all the questions that they asked. Many hon. Members made the point that every child deserves the same life chances. We are determined to promote and enhance children's opportunities in all our policies. As many hon. Members said, one of the fundamental needs of a child is a stable and strong family that provides loving care and safety, and which nurtures the child's development as an individual and as a member of society.

The damage inflicted on those who have been neglected or harmed as children is all too evident. Hon. Members may not know it, but I started my career as a residential child care worker, and I saw at first hand the sort of damage, which the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) described, that can happen in the so-called care system.

When children cannot live with their birth parents, we have a duty to ensure that other families are found for them or, if that is not possible, to provide the next best alternative. Adoption can help provide a stable and secure family life for many children who are looked after by local authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) made that point and spoke movingly and with great passion about her feelings on the matter. She complained especially about the tracking system for children in care. In a thoughtful, well- composed and interesting speech, the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) made the same point.

Although it is not a problem for legislation, and it is not covered in the Bill, the Government are taking action to improve record keeping and planning for children. In the next year, we shall develop an integrated children's system, which will bring together planning and record keeping for children in need in the community and those looked after by local authorities. It will provide a single, coherent record of the child's case history until adoption. That will help planning and decision making. I am not talking about a national database; the aim is to improve individual local authorities' information and record keeping. It is a key theme of the quality protects programme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South argued strongly for children at the centre of proceedings to have a voice. Through the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, we shall reform the role of guardians

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ad litem and the family court welfare service. It will provide precisely the voice that children need in the care system.

Several hon. Members, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, asked about fast-tracking adoption procedures for younger children. Our draft national adoption standards set challenging targets. They are currently out for consultation, which will end this month. Our objective is that a plan will be drawn up for a child no more than six months after entering care--sooner if appropriate for the child. If adoption is the plan, a decision should be made in six months and a match with parents made in a further six months. Those are the targets on which we are consulting. It is important for younger children that that should happen as soon as possible. We accept the points made on both sides of the Chamber on that matter. We recognise that, for babies and infants, speed is extremely important, which is why the adoption standards propose that adoption panels should meet at 48 hours' notice, if necessary, to take decisions on babies and infants.

I thank the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden for his warm and generous welcome for the Bill. I agreed with almost everything that he said--speaking as one former Whip to another--and I contrast his constructive contribution to that of the hon. Member for Meriden. I particularly enjoyed the exchange between the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) on the judgments that social workers and adoption agencies have to make.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden questioned the degree of scrutiny that a putative adoptive family--a set of adoptive parents--will have to go through. From my own experience, I think that that is a necessary part of the process. If we are to protect children, it is right that the benefits of a detailed scrutiny of adoptive parents should be obtained. That scrutiny ought not to be overly intrusive, but it is a necessary step in protecting children. It is important to strike a balance in all such interventions.

The right hon. Gentleman went on to talk about the American experience, and he questioned placement orders and the relationship with the birth parents once a placement order had been put in place. We believe that the child's welfare should be the paramount consideration in all decisions relating to adoption. However, it is not true that the courts will not consider the child's birth family. The child's birth family remains an important factor.

The courts will also be explicitly obliged to consider the impact on the child of ceasing to be a member of his or her birth family, the relationship that the child has with his relatives and any change that the adoption would bring. When considering the child's relationship with his relatives, the courts must give specific consideration to the wishes and feelings of the child's relatives regarding the child. However, it is right that the focus should be on the child. I believe that the provision will bring adoption law into line with the Children Act 1989, as promised in the White Paper.

The right hon. Gentleman went on to talk about targets. Here we are caught in a bind, because the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) felt that our targets might be too tight and should be abandoned when necessary,

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but the right hon. Gentleman took the opposite view and felt that they might not be tight enough. I am sure that we shall debate those issues in greater detail in the special Select Committee.

The hon. Member for Meriden suggested that the Bill had been timed to frustrate her own private Member's Bill. I compliment and congratulate her on the progress that she has made with her Bill, but my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) approached the Vote Office and found that it had not been printed yet, so perhaps there is some confusion there.

The hon. Member for Meriden wasted at least 10 minutes of her opening speech on a badly judged party-political statement. She then raised a number of issues. She asked about the use of the terms "must" and "shall", and suggested that they might introduce unnecessary confusion between the Bill and the Children Act. "Must" and "shall" are interchangeable words in legislation. It was a shame that she wasted valuable time on that rather fatuous point.

The hon. Lady also raised a number of important points, and I shall take a little time to answer them. She asked why we should not give adopted people the right to access information about their backgrounds when they reach the age of 16. Under the Bill, adopted people will be entitled to access such information when they reach the age of 18. We shall explore, in the special Select Committee, the proposals that the hon. Lady has made. However, in some cases, the information in question might be of a sensitive nature and it is vital that adopted people are able to make an informed decision about accessing it. They must do that when they are legally adults. In practice, adoptive parents are and will continue to be encouraged informally to share information with the children about their background while they are growing up.

The hon. Member for Meriden raised the question whether sibling groups should be split up. We are determined to improve adoption services in the best interests of all the children involved in a particular case. She will agree that evidence shows that siblings generally do better when placed together and we would expect there to be a very good reason for placing siblings separately. Sometimes, splitting up brothers and sisters can be the right decision--for example, in cases of inter-sibling abuse--but it must be up to the professionals involved to judge whether that is necessary.

Like a number of Members, the hon. Lady asked about adoption allowances, making the point that they are too variable. We agree with that analysis, which is why we promised in our White Paper to develop a new, fairer and more consistent framework. Over the coming year, we shall back that proposal with £66 million.

It is important for the House to know that that is not the only resource, as we are providing record funding to children's services. Conservative Members complained about inadequate resources for social services and pleaded for adoption allowances in a range of different cases, but we might take those comments more seriously if they stood up and said that they would match the resources that we are making available for social services. They will not do it, however, and their crocodile tears on resources should be disregarded and treated as exactly that.

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