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Mr. Heald rose--

Mr. David Davis rose--

Mr. Gardiner: I would be happy to give way on that point--as soon as I have finished making it.

It seems to me that a child adopted by parents in a local authority area becomes, not the child who came from local authority A and is an import to local authority B, stigmatised by having some awkward financial relationship tailing back, but simply a child of that area, as any other local child would be. The hon. Lady must consider carefully the potential stigma for the child funded by a distant local authority--although I understand her reasons for wanting the money to follow the child.

As for allowances following the child, the hon. Lady talked about capital allowances whereby, perhaps, if a family were accepting siblings together, their car could be upgraded from a saloon to a people carrier. I found that part of her speech somewhat strange. We could have been forgiven for thinking that the Conservative party had proposed to increase the social security budget rather than refusing to match the Government's spending proposals. The idea that adoptive children will bring with them large enough resources to upgrade the family car is strange.

Mr. Heald: I was surprised by what the hon. Gentleman said earlier, because when people adopt older children, many come with a host of problems from their earlier lives. I suggest that training for adoptive parents is important in such cases, and that the sort of financial support that my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden talked about is vital too. I invite the hon. Gentleman to reconsider the points that he has been making. If people take on a child who has been placed in short-term foster care on numerous occasions, especially if an attempt is being made to re-establish a disintegrated family, with the child moving backwards and forwards, they will certainly need some help.

Mr. Gardiner: The hon. Gentleman misunderstands me. I do not propose that there should not be allowances available when a child comes into a new family, but that they should not necessarily follow from the old authority. My objections related to the transfer from one authority into the new area.

Mr. Davis: The hon. Gentleman has been a distinguished member of the Public Accounts Committee,

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and has been a signatory to a number of reports in which we have highlighted perverse behaviour by local authorities. Housing benefit is an example that comes to mind. Local authorities can behave perversely because they would lose out as a result of a proper action. My hon. Friend's proposals are designed to prevent such perverse behaviour. How would the hon. Gentleman's proposals achieve that?

Mr. Gardiner: I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point, but perhaps he did not listen carefully enough to what I said. I said that I thought there was another aspect that the hon. Member for Meriden should consider. I did not say that there was not good reason in principle to ensure that money follows the child: support must be provided.

I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman said about perverse incentives, but it is important for the new local authority providing care to have a sense of ownership of the child in the new community, and a sense that this child is different. The existence of a funding stream relating to the previous authority may create an artificial distinction between the children in the new authority's remit. I am not saying that the point about perverse incentives was not fair, but there must be some way of overcoming the resistance of authorities to the transfer or acceptance of children into adoptive-parent structures.

Mr. Davis: Might not the same end be achieved by a ring-fenced direct change in standard spending assessment? That would have exactly the same effect.

Mr. Gardiner: In many respects, that might indeed be a better way around the problem.

The existing adoption legislation needs to be changed, and the Adoption and Children Bill, which we discussed earlier in the week, will help that. It will support efforts to build confidence in the adoption process--efforts whose importance has been stressed by Members on both side of the House today--by encouraging more people to come forward to adopt, and enabling the Secretary of State to establish an independent review mechanism for applicants who consider that they are being turned down unfairly. It will help to cut harmful delays. We have already set challenging time targets for decision making in the application process in the draft national adoption standards that were published with the White Paper. The Bill provides for the Secretary of State to establish a national adoption register to reduce delays for adopters and children waiting to be matched, which must be a good thing. It also includes measures requiring the courts to draw up timetables for adoption cases, to help cut delays in the legal process.

The Bill that we are now discussing deals with an important topic, which all Members think the Government should address and which the Government have rightly addressed. I believe that the best way of ensuring that we have the best legislation for our children is for the Adoption and Children Bill to receive widespread and all-party support, for Members to engage in constructive discussion of that Bill both here and in the Standing Committee, and for sensible amendments--such as those contained in the hon. Lady's Bill, which make important points and may well improve the Government's legislation--to be made in that Committee. I do not

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believe that the hon. Lady's Bill, as a free-standing private Member's Bill, is appropriate at this stage of the parliamentary process.

11.44 am

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): Let me begin by declaring an interest. As a solicitor, I practised for some years in the field of family law and adoption, before moving on to a career in crime--[Laughter.] Perhaps that is the wrong phrase. In due course I sat, and continue to sit, as a recorder in the Crown court, and as a district judge in the magistrates courts.

Putting children's needs at the centre of the process: that is a laudable aim. The Government Bill sought to achieve that aim, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on her Bill because it complements the Government's Bill. As the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) said earlier, Friday mornings can show the House at its best, when Members are not arguing with each other but trying to be constructive.

I believe that adoption should be very high on our agenda. I ask Members to accompany me on a journey. Let them come with me to the courts where I sit day after day--perhaps to Camberwell Green, or to the south-western court of Clapham; perhaps to Greenwich, Woolwich, or the Thames court at Bow in Poplar. Let them sit with me on the bench, and look at the court in front of me. They will see 50, 60, 70 defendants, all to be dealt with that morning. Many are aged between 18 and 21. They are there for crimes of violence involving drink--quite often--or drugs--quite often.

The defendant may be black, or he may be white. He is young: he is certainly young. Before we sentence him we read the pre-sentence report, which reads as follows. "This defendant has a very troubled background. His father was violent; his mother was an alcoholic. When he was two his home life broke up, and he was taken into care. He spent some time with foster parents, then went back into care, then went back to the foster parents. Between the ages of five and 17, he was in care. He never had a settled background; he never acquired a qualification. He was in care, in care, in care."

If Members look up from the bench, they will see the young man in front of them. He represents a real problem: the link between a family background that is non-existent--a really troubled childhood--and crime. As was said earlier today, some 40 per cent. of young criminals have been in care. I do not often read a report that tells me that a young man, or woman, was adopted at the age of one and brought up by a loving couple. Oh no: I read "in care".

Let no one be under any illusions about the crisis that faces a nation in which, as I am led to believe, nearly 60,000 children are in care. That is the future criminal generation--and who is to say that it is their fault? Did not my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) say that the state was not a good parent, or words to that effect? How right he was. That is why this is such an important debate. Was it the Jesuits who said, "Give us a child until he is seven, and we can always keep him thereafter", or something like that? Do we not all know that those are indeed the most formative years of a child's life?

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I understand that there are some 4,000 adoptions per year in England and Wales. I would be interested to know the number of children available for adoption, and whether that 4,000 figure represents as small a proportion of the available children as I believe it does.

Mr. Swayne: The 4,000 figure represents a fall from the figure of some 25,000 in 1975.

Mr. Malins: I did not know that. It is a telling statistic, and it must have something to do with the problems of the young in our society today.

I should also like to know what proportion of the 4,000 children are aged between nought and two, what proportion are aged between two and four, what proportion are between four and eight and what proportion are between eight and 12. If adoption is to be effective, it is surely terribly important for a young child to be very young when adopted--no older than eight or nine.

I want to comment on one or two aspects of my hon. Friend's Bill and compare it with the Government's Bill. Under clause 96 of the Government Bill, the Secretary of State can establish and maintain a national adoption register containing some prescribed information--so far so good--but we all agree that there is a need to ensure that the process of matching children and parents should become much more effective and efficient. One feels--dare I say it?--that the dead hand of bureaucracy and paperwork, which is daily and irresistibly increasing in our lives, needs to be kept in check as much as possible in the adoption process. We all agree that the process of matching children and parents should take a much shorter time. Every day or month that slips by can delay the much needed arrival of the stability and security that adoption can bring.

Most usefully, my hon. Friend's Bill focuses on the need to passport the money. Currently, a disincentive exists, as an authority that receives a child from another authority will be liable for all payments connected to it. Under her Bill, the authority responsible for the child--the one under which the adoption plan for the child was made--will have financial responsibility too.

I move to the appeals system and an omission in the Government Bill which I believe most of us recognise. Currently, appeals go into the system. Often, a complaint against an authority is dealt with by the director of social services. It has been pointed out that that is not always a satisfactory situation. My hon. Friend's Bill widens the appeals process. It refers to the ability of an adoptive parent or prospective adoptive parent to appeal against any decision by an adoption agency. It goes further; it states that the guardian ad litem for a child may appeal against any decision by an adoption agency that materially affects the interests of that child.

The role of the guardian ad litem is important and should perhaps be extended considerably in time, noting as we should his obvious ability to articulate complaints that the child or young person could not so readily do. Should there not be provision for those who may be concerned about a child to make a complaint on behalf of the child--for example, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, a paediatrician who may have a lot of contact through his or her professional life with a child and who may have any number of concerns? The Children's Commissioner

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for Wales and the children's rights director in England could be given power to oversee the whole process of adoption and to act as ombudsman. They could and perhaps should be given unrestricted access to the child in care to establish at the point of delivery whether proper care is being provided and whether the adoption process is proceeding fast enough.

I move to what we call the fast-tracking of babies within the adoption system. It is dealt with in clause 3 of my hon. Friend's Bill. We all know that it is much easier to place a baby for adoption than an older child such as a teenager. In recent times, much emphasis has been placed on the tricky placement of those older children. That is all very well, but has that been at the expense of placing babies and very young children?

Some children are growing up in a succession of foster homes. It is difficult for them to form a stable and permanent relationship with any adoptive family. That is doubly bad, for we all know that the younger a child is, the more easily it will settle into a new family. Equally, if younger children are placed more efficiently and quickly, there will be fewer older and, by definition, more difficult children to deal with. A fast track for adoption of babies and young children where time limits were lower than for older children would thus help to reduce the problem. The main point is that it is critical that a young child should have the chance to settle into a family as soon as possible.

Let us never forget that the needs of the child are paramount, and that that child is already--do not forget it--damaged by the fact that its home life is in some difficulty. Next and most importantly, as institutions, the family and marriage are still vital to the safe continuance of a free society. It saddens me that they are both institutions that in today's climate are often sneered at and undervalued. All research confirms that the best, although not of course the only, environment for children to be brought up in is marriage. A stable home based on marriage and the family, and the influence of a mother and father, are the best guarantees against a child turning to crime--I should know that.

Let me ask hon. Members to look up from their desk in Camberwell court and see the young man aged 19 who is standing trembling 10 yd away, and who, for the 14th, 12th or 10th time, is before us for sentence. He has never been adopted. He should have been adopted as a baby because then he would have had a chance. He was in care. Which of us dares look at him and tell him to go to Feltham young offenders institution for over-18s, the biggest hell-hole I have ever seen, for six months? That is why I say that adoption should go right to the top of our agenda when we think about young people.

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