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Mr. Stunell: I am well aware that a bit of levity does not go amiss, but we need to ensure that our young people have the parenting skills that make them effective natural parents, as well as ensuring that those who seek to become adoptive parents have the requisite skills. The level of skill needed is not lower for natural parents; it is the same. We make real efforts to ensure that adoptive parents have those skills. We test their skills before we let them loose. Parenting skills should perhaps be another subject in the national curriculum.
The hon. Member for Meriden needs to do a little more work on two or three points. She talked about extending the role of guardians ad litem so that they play a supervisory role for longer. The Minister asked precisely what she meant, and I hope that she will not mind my saying that she was a teeny bit woolly in her response. Does she envisage an extra six months, six years or 16 years? My experience as a member of a social services committee is that guardians ad litem are like gold dust. They have to be qualified social workers from outside the area. In Stockport, a number of our senior social workers already spend a good deal of their time acting as guardians to children in other authorities, and vice versa. There is a problem about expecting senior qualified people on loan from other authorities to provide the service for an extended period. That is not to say that behind her proposal there is not a good idea, but the hon. Lady perhaps needs to take a second look at it.
The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) made a point about the life experience that social workers bring to the job. My experience of adoption is many years ago now, but the social worker whom we dealt with was a young, unmarried woman. There was no harm in that; she was excellent. I have no complaints, but I hear stories that suggest that social workers sometimes come to the task with little idea of what bringing up children is about and carry out tests as though from a book. Some parents who have more experience of children and of life find that pretty tedious, especially if they are rejected. There is an issue not so much about social work training as about ensuring that social workers have the life experience that will fit them for their role.
Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): There is in my part of the world a rather apposite proverb, which is that good ideas have many parents and bad ideas have none. By that measure, the proposed adoption legislation is a good idea, because many claims have been made to its parenthood--to its maternity and paternity rights. I will not revisit the spat that we had on Monday, but my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) has done a good job of midwifery on the legislative programme in encouraging what may be one of the most important pieces of social legislation of the decade. Her Bill highlights and corrects gaps in the Government's Adoption and Children Bill that were recognised by hon. Members on both sides of the House, including the Minister, on Monday.
It is clear that the Government's Bill was rapidly drafted. That is why the Government sensibly took the route of a special Select Committee, which no doubt will run into the next Parliament, whichever party wins the general election. Notable omissions were picked up in Monday's debate, and my hon. Friend has corrected them all in her Bill. We should be careful with social legislation, especially if it is important and is supported by Members on both sides of the House. Such legislation is most prone to being enacted without sufficient care and attention to detail. The Bill to create the Child Support Agency, to introduce care in the community and a series of other Bills are examples of that.
I am sorry that the Minister is not on the Bench, but I hope that the Government will adopt my hon. Friend's proposals in the special Select Committee that will consider their Bill. That is their best chance of making the statute book.
It is difficult to follow the many excellent speeches that have been made, including from the past Chairman of the Select Committee on Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), a magistrate who has dealt with the victims, if that is the right word, of the current system, a past Secretary of State for Social Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), and my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden. I shall be brief, and take up one point on each of the three clauses.
My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden is entirely right when she says that we must have a capitation scheme. It does not matter whether that goes through the standard spending assessment directly or whether it is a legislative scheme, as is proposed. It must be clear, and it must apply to voluntary agencies. There are quite serious problems even between the voluntary sector and local authorities in this context.
For example, most local authorities think that it costs about £3,000 to recruit a new adoptive parent. Voluntary agencies have to find £14,000 for each parent. There are real problems in terms of how much to pay and where the money will come from, which thwarted the previous attempt to set up a register. These problems apply also to the various types of children who are passed on, and include age and the extent of damage. Those factors should dictate different levels of capitation. Therefore, the system will need to be carefully thought through.
One of the difficulties within local authorities is the lack of oversight. In a non-transparent system, the pressures to behave properly and justly, with a view to the right outcome in the long term, disappear. They are often subsumed by matters such as resource shortages or the department having only untrained youngsters to put into the adoption and fostering sector. We are talking of a necessary requirement for justice and for a change of behaviour.
The Bill contains a proposal to fast-track babies, which arose on Monday. There is no doubt that it is an extremely important issue, as the Minister recognised on Monday. It is dreadful that the Association of Directors of Social Services does not recognise that. It does not regard fast tracking as one of the most serious issues to be taken on board. That is why legislation is required, or strong legislative guidance.
It is obviously assumed that fast tracking is the right thing. It is clear that a year in care for a one-year-old does more harm than a year in care for an 11-year-old, who perhaps has already been in care for 10 years. Statistics show that break-up rates for older children are much higher than those for younger children, but that does not pick up the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, which was that the
Finally, record keeping is extraordinarily important. Again, it is not dealt with in legislation, but it is important to recognise it from the perspective of social services directors and local authorities. Do social services directors know about all the children who have been moved six or seven times or even, in the case I cited on Monday night, 60 times? If a child dies in care from a drugs overdose, having been moved 60 times, social services directors must know how many times the child had been moved, and must have that drawn to their attention; the information must be easily available. Furthermore, everybody in their department must know that the figures will be available to the world at large--not information about individuals, but overall statistics on how well the department has done and what has happened to the children in its care.
If we do not have those records, the situation will continue; the placing of children will be driven by resources--how many foster parents are available--and the expediency of having to solve a problem by the end of the week, rather than solving it properly. My hon. Friend is right to put record keeping in her Bill.
May I repeat to the Minister what I said at the beginning of my speech? I hope that he will take note of the points that I have made, none of which is partisan, and virtually all of which were made on Monday by Members on both sides of the House, including the chairman of the all-party adoption group, a member of the Minister's own party. All those points are important and are perfect items to be considered during the special Select Committee stage of the Government Bill. That is the best way to ensure that the Minister gets a good Bill and that my hon. Friend's Bill makes it into law.