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11.57 am

Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), first, on being successful in the private Member's Bill ballot last December, secondly, on choosing adoption as the subject for her Bill and her excellent presentation this morning, and thirdly, for revealing a serious omission in the Labour Government's legislative programme that was outlined in the Queen's Speech. I am sure that the Minister is aware that many of us were extremely

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disappointed that adoption was not given priority by the Government at the beginning of the parliamentary Session, but I am pleased that that has now been corrected by the Government's recently published Bill on adoption and children, which had its Second Reading last Monday.

Unfortunately, I was unable to participate in that debate owing to other parliamentary commitments, but naturally I welcome any measures that focus on the interests of children throughout adoption procedures. I know that Opposition Front Benchers have indicated their support for the principle of that Bill. I also, of course, welcome my hon. Friend's Bill, which addresses additional adoption issues.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) for their contributions to today's debate. I think that they have clearly demonstrated the consensus on both sides of the Chamber on encouraging adoption by means of the measures that the House is considering.

Hon. Members may know that I was Chairman of the Select Committee on Health for five years, from 1992 to 1997, in which time the Committee undertook an inquiry into children's health. It was the first time such an inquiry had been conducted. The inquiry was very wide ranging, and it was broken down into reports on specific headings--such as the health needs of children and young people; health services for children and young people in the community, home and school; child and adolescent mental health services; and hospital services for children and young people. Unfortunately, the 1997 general election interrupted our programme of investigations.

Following that general election, I was no longer a member of that Committee. However, I am delighted to say that the new Committee members continued the unfinished business and, in July 1998, produced a report on children looked after by local authorities in which, of course, adoption featured.

The report endorsed the view that the Children Act 1989 is correct to presume that the best possible outcome to episodes of care is the child's successful reunion with a loving birth family which receives appropriate support to enable it to cope with the child. None the less, in some cases, there is no realistic prospect of a child ever returning to his or her birth family. In those circumstances, adoption is one of a number of options that should be considered.

Adoption should proceed only when, first, it is judged that there is no realistic prospect of reconciliation with the birth family; secondly, when adoption is in accord with the wishes of the child, assuming of course that the child is old enough to reach a decision on such matters; and thirdly, when the would-be adoptive parents have been assessed as capable of coping with the demands that the child will place on them.

A social services inspectorate report, with the evidence that the Health Committee took from others at that time, made it clear that local authorities too often fail to take adoption sufficiently seriously as an option, that unnecessary delays occur and that insufficient support is offered to adoptive parents. When a looked-after child is adopted, it is important that the decision-making process should proceed without undue delay, and that appropriate support be offered to adoptive parents during and after the process of adoption.

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In 1996, the social services inspectorate found that serious delays frequently occurred between the forming of a plan for the adoption of a child and the making of a placement. Those delays were found to be attributable partly to the absence of a sense of urgency on the part of the social services department or an unwillingness to commit resources to the cost of inter-agency placement. Of course we know that some local authorities discharge their duties competently. However, several of the witnesses who came before the Committee claimed that social services departments and social workers can display an irrational hostility to the concept of adoption.

The organisation Adoption Forum stated that the

and claimed that

Adoption Forum argued that a child who has been "looked after" continuously for six months is unlikely to be successfully reconciled with his or her birth family in the long term, that in such cases adoption should be considered, and that it should be a statutory requirement for adoption to be considered in the cases of children who have spent more than 18 months in the care system.

A group of adoptive parents also gave oral evidence to the Health Select Committee. They claimed that many social workers were biased against adoption and that, when mothers were unable to cope with very young children and wished to have them adopted, undue pressure was often brought to bear on them to change their mind.

Sir William Utting said that his review team, reporting on the safeguards for children living away from home, had found evidence in 1987 that

The Parent to Parent Information on Adoption Services body agreed with the Adoption Forum that

in the current care system made it unnecessarily difficult to adopt. However, it added that an improved system would still not turn thousands of young, inexperienced, infertile couples who long for a baby into parents immediately able to take on board the needs and behaviour of an 18-month-old who has been severely neglected from birth, an eight-year-old who has been rejected by his birth mother, abused by his mother's partners and moved 26 times through the care system, or a group of four brothers and sisters who need to stay together and to recover from years of sexual abuse.

Clause 3, which deals with fast tracking for the adoption of babies and young children, is particularly relevant to the points that I have raised. There is no doubt in my mind that it is in the best interests of a child to settle as young as possible into a new and permanent family unit. Let us make no mistake about it--influences on small babies and young children can have a profound effect on how they develop and mature. A warm, stable and, importantly, loving environment in which to grow

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up from the earliest moment is essential for laying the foundations of a well balanced and happy adult--an individual who will take their place in society as a contributor to the well-being of their community and give their own families, in due course, security and the knowledge of the meaning of loving care.

The more disruption there is in a child's life, the more difficult it may become to place that child as it grows older and to heal the damage from which it may have suffered, both physically and mentally, during the course of its early years.

12.8 pm

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): I support the Bill of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and I am delighted that it has been introduced. Just like waiting for a bus, we have waited ages for such a Bill, and now two have come along at once. It is ironic that we have had what seems like Bill after Bill on this subject in the past couple of weeks.

I should like to declare two interests. The first is formal: I am a member of Stockport metropolitan borough council's social services committee, which is an adopting agency, so I see some of these issues from the local authority's angle. It has been a matter of intense concern to members of the committee to ensure that the life chances and educational chances of children in our care and protection are handled sensitively, and that we provide them in full measure as best we can.

My second interest is informal. I have five children, two of whom are adopted and of mixed race. They would probably be a little insulted to be described as children; they are both in their twenties and are making their way, very successfully, in the world. One of the facts of life in the adoption culture is that we would not have been permitted to adopt them if we had begun to do so five years later than we did because of their mixed racial background. I therefore have a particular perspective on the debate.

As my earlier intervention on the hon. Member for Meriden showed, I think that preserving young people's life and educational chances is absolutely fundamental. That is the why I strongly support the changes to the adoption laws proposed in the Bill and in the Adoption and Children Bill, which the Government have introduced. The delays, the multiple placements, the changed physical locations, the different relationships that children have to form, the different schools that they attend, the different school friends that they have to make and the damage to a young person's emotional development that all that implies are precisely what creates the circumstances that the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) outlined in referring to his court experiences. We must recognise the tremendous damage that we do simply because we try too hard to ensure that the care and the parents are appropriate.

If the revised laws, which I hope will soon be introduced, have the effect that their promoters, including the hon. Lady, want them to have, and if we can do anything to reduce the disruption and emotional betrayal, we will have done young people a tremendous service and, incidentally, produced real benefits for society. The fact of the matter is that children who slip through the adoption system are exactly the people who turn up in court later on.

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As an adoptive parent, I am perhaps in a good position to make a couple of points. Children are not a commodity. We are not simply trying to produce a more efficient supermarket so that the goods reach consumers as quickly as possible. The proposals are not about making it easy for adoptive parents; they must never be seen as a way to fulfil the wishes of middle-class couples in the shortest possible time. I say in all sincerity that, like every other hon. Member, I deal with people seeking adoption and a variety of matters relating to adoption, and people's expectations can be based on their own wish fulfilment, rather than on meeting the needs of children and young people.

Having said that, I want to turn to the remarks of the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner), who spoke about the training that adoptive parents undergo and the lack of training that he had as a natural parent. My wife and I had two natural children before starting our programme of adoption, if that is not too grand a title. We were aware of the stark contrast that existed. We did not have to ask anyone, and no one asked us, about our two natural children, but as soon as we wanted to adopt, people started to ask questions. When we had the first two, no one knew whether we were alcoholics, drug abusers or child abusers, and no one asked.

Luck was on our side and everything was okay, but as soon as we sought to adopt, every question was asked and every examination carried out. I do not resent that at all--in fact, it has brought my wife and I to a conclusion that is the reverse of that reached by the hon. Member for Brent, North: it should be rather more difficult to have natural children.

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