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House of Commons

Friday 30 March 2001

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Adoption Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.33 am

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for kindly selecting this Bill for Second Reading. I am sure that hon. Members are aware that we debated the Government's Adoption and Children Bill on Monday, but they might be interested in the process that ensued after that debate and the reason for having this debate today.

Usually, private Members' Bills are of a strongly consensual nature and enjoy large cross-party support. I am sure that hon. Members agree that adoption is precisely one of those subjects on which there is consensus. I do not expect today's debate to be any different in that respect, but hon. Members may find interesting the historical precedents for the situation that we are in, namely, Second Reading of a Government Bill being followed in close proximity by a private Member's Bill.

Such a circumstance has occurred before. It is well documented in "Erskine May" that it arose in the 1994-95 Session with the Disability Rights Commission. A private Member's Bill had been introduced to drive forward the important issue of bringing such a commission into being, but the then Government introduced their own Bill to achieve that. Interestingly, on that occasion also the Speaker ruled that both Bills should be debated.

The criteria for allowing both Bills to be debated in such close proximity is that they should be distinct and different. They may ultimately have the same objective, but they should have different ways of approaching the problem. That is exactly the challenge that fell to me between Monday and this morning: to find a way that was distinctly different from the way in which the Government had chosen to approach the reform of the law, but which may have the same outcome. I assure hon. Members that quite a lot of midnight oil was burned between 10.45 pm on Monday and my Bill going to the printers at 2 pm on Wednesday.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Does my hon. Friend agree that "complementary" might be the right word? Her Bill skilfully fills in the gaps in the Government Bill--which is basically a good measure--and as such should be seen as complementing and supporting the Government Bill.

Mrs. Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. "Complementary" is exactly the right word.

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I would not dream of using the word "block", particularly on a private Member's Bill Friday. Perhaps it would be wrong to anticipate the outcome before we have had the debate, but I fully expect that the two Bills will result in better legislation in the long run. In searching for complementary aspects of adoption reform, I hope ultimately to see those worked into the reform of the Adoption Act 1976, which is what we are trying to change.

For the sake of hon. Members, I want to explain some acrobatics that had to be performed with my Bill. They may be confused over why my Bill does not refer to the Government Bill, which had its Second Reading on Monday. As I explained, my Bill needs to be distinct and different. Its purpose must be to reform existing law--to all intents and purposes, that is principally the 1976 Act. It cannot specifically refer to legislation that is in the pipeline, but it must take account of what is in the pipeline--the Government Bill--in order not to duplicate it. I hope that it is clear that that is the course that I had to pursue.

I pay tribute to the Clerks for helping me to perform that piece of procedural acrobatics, especially at such short notice. I do not know whether it is in order to mention a Clerk by name, but Nick Walker was extremely helpful in trying to get the Bill right in what was a pressurised time scale. I have relied heavily on his advice. I wonder how it would have been possible to meet the criteria without his advice and assistance.

The historical setting was not discussed during Monday's Second Reading debate, but it is an important dimension to the adoption debate. Interestingly--I would not have been aware of this without the Library's research paper for Monday's debate--we seem to debate adoption only once a generation, or every 25 years, and one or more private Members' Bills have usually acted as the catalyst for change to adoption law.

The Adoption of Children Act 1926 introduced legal adoption in England and Wales, but a private Member's Bill introduced in 1922 started that process. Although that Bill was considered on Report, it had to be dropped on the Dissolution of Parliament. In 1923, two Bills on adoption were introduced, both of which had to be dropped. In 1924, three Bills, including one applying specifically to Scotland, were introduced. Two of them received a Second Reading but were subsequently dropped. In 1925, private Members' Bills made further attempts to change adoption law. Eventually, in 1926, Government adoption legislation was passed.

That history demonstrates an important pattern that was repeated in the post-war years and the passage of the Adoption of Children Act 1949. As history tends to repeat itself, and, at the start of a new century, we seek to reform adoption legislation, it might be helpful to remember that history. I should add that although legislation was passed in the 1960s that slightly amended previous adoption legislation, the foundations for current adoption legislation were laid in the 1976 Act.

Precedents on reforming adoption legislation were set at the end of the previous century. It is generally acknowledged that, in 1996, a draft Bill on adoption reform was prepared. Like the current Adoption and Children Bill, it was preceded by full consultation and a White Paper. In short, therefore, we seem to have reached that point in the generational cycle at which adoption legislation--the 1976 Act--seems to need reform.

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It is instructive to note that changes to adoption law have been a reflection of changes in society and that reform of the 1976 Act will also reflect societal change. In the 1970s, for example, 20,000 children were adopted, whereas towards the end of the 1990s, only 4,100 children were adopted. There are major societal reasons for that change, such as the fact that far fewer babies are available for adoption--partly because of the greater effectiveness and availability of modern contraception. Presumably, introduction of the morning-after pill will have an impact on the number of babies available for adoption.

Another reason why fewer babies are available for adoption is that it has become easier, although not easy, for a woman to raise a baby on her own, and the stigma of doing so has largely fallen away. I was quite interested by the fact that last year only two babies were adopted in my neighbouring health authority area in Coventry. I think that that statistic illustrates the great change that has occurred.

Conversely, many children are in care. Although the number has fluctuated over time and occasionally reached 100,000, currently about 58,000 children are in care. I expect that part of today's debate will concentrate on the needs of children in care and the fact that, in many cases, their opportunity to find permanence in a family home has been obstructed by unnecessary bureaucratic delay. Many of those children have suffered because of delay in finding them a permanent home.

A sad litany of statistics demonstrates why it is so important to address the needs of children in care. The statistics show that children in care do not fare well and that collectively, as the corporate parent, we have done a poor job in looking after them. It is a depressing fact that 70 per cent. of young people leave care without having gained a GCSE or GNVQ qualification. Additionally, 25 per cent. of looked-after children aged 14 to 16 do not attend school regularly, may have been excluded, and have no regular educational placement even when they are in care. As the corporate parent, we can look only to ourselves to explain why their educational attendance record is so poor.

A statistic that particularly upsets me as a woman is that between 14 and 25 per cent. of young women leaving care are either pregnant or have a child, whereas only 3 per cent. of 20-year-old women in the general population have a child. I have to conclude that hon. Members, as representatives of the corporate parent with responsibility for looking after children, have dismally failed those young women.

Another important but depressing statistic is that 39 per cent. of male prisoners under 21 have been in care. There is a close correlation between the experience of young children who have been in care and their poor life chances. Although they undoubtedly had difficulties before going into care, their experience of being in care seems only to have added to their decreased opportunities for success in life after leaving care. In many cases, the experience of being in care has clearly been detrimental.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): I had not intended to intervene so early in my hon. Friend's speech, but she has raised an issue that concerns me. In east Kent, we have a heavy problem because of the vast numbers of children

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being taken into care--some of whom have been quite literally dumped there by London boroughs that do not make their own provision, but choose to use out-of-county and out-of-town provision. Anything that she and other hon. Members who support the Bill can do to alleviate that problem and ensure that those children receive a proper family upbringing will, I am sure, have the full support of colleagues in Kent on both sides of the House.

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