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Mr. Denham: Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on whether the existence of difficult cases perhaps places a question mark over including time limits in regulations rather than in best practice guidance?

Mr. Swayne: That is a forceful point. I would certainly want a framework of regulation to allow fast-track procedures. Even if we did not specify in regulations the timetables involved, I would want to see a framework there to achieve that. I look forward to discussing that with the Minister in the Committee that I am sure will follow our deliberations--

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): For months.

Mr. Swayne: Yes; this one will run and run.

As a cautionary note to what I was saying just before the Minister intervened, we would not want family law and adoption cases to be separated from the generality of court work and the judicial mainstream, and become simply an arm of social services departments.

Social services departments have not emerged from many reports and investigations as particularly efficient. Rather, they have often been seen as confused over their roles, with a lack of openness and accountability, and inexperienced and unqualified staff at both ground and supervisory levels. Obviously, problems concerning the prioritisation of adoption work have flowed from that. I refer in particular to the Murch and Lowe study, "Pathways to Adoption", which was published by the centre for family studies at Bristol university.

In contrast, workers from voluntary agencies are likely to have specialist training in child placement, small case loads and good supervision. The review of adoption law commissioned by the Department of Health and the Law Commission questioned whether local authorities should continue to have the primary responsibility for adoption practice at all, and in 1996 the social services inspectorate questioned whether the nature and volume of adoption work justified local authorities continuing to provide in-house services. It said that all the indicators pointed

The 1996 draft Bill preserved the role of local authorities. Indeed, the Government's recently published Adoption and Children Bill, which we debated on Monday, also preserves that role. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, however, has suggested some measures that would provide a useful means of gingering up the performance of local authorities in the discharge of their responsibilities.

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Some of the inertia would be broken by providing passporting for finance in clause 1(3). The case for fast tracking was drawn movingly to our attention on Monday by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), who gave an exposition of the importance, for small children in particular, of being sped through the system. What my hon. Friend suggests in subsection (3) is important in that respect.

An independent and transparent means of adjudicating on complaints--an appeals system, as provided by clause 2--is vital for providing a check on the conduct of the local authority.

In clause 3(2) my hon. Friend draws attention to the collection of data. The lack of routine data places a constraint on the ability of Government and organisations to monitor what is happening, and to be alert to changes. That important point was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden. Only by having such data can people recognise shortcomings, and realise that certain things must be investigated. Even when records are kept, there have been considerable differences in format and coverage among different agencies.

Accurate and relevant information is essential to the management of any process, and to the wise development of policy. There has been some improvement--I welcome the recent statistical reports of the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering and the Office for National Statistics--but such initiatives rely on the care with which data have been collected locally, and that is dependent on how clear staff are about what information is to be kept, in what format, and for what purpose. It is dependent on the training of clerical staff, and on standardisation. We should learn from the example of Scotland, which has a much more comprehensive approach to the collection of adoption statistics. All that is in keeping with what the Secretary of State said in a letter about quality protects, which he sent to all elected members of social services committees at the end of 1998.

The quality of service to the individual is also affected by the quality of the information available. Those who make professional decisions about adoption must possess detailed and accurate histories of the children in question. Should a child be adopted, and when? Should it be placed with brothers and sisters? What kind of family is most likely to meet its needs? What support is required? Wise decisions about adoption also depend on a detailed and up-to-date knowledge of birth families, and the families with which children have been placed or might be placed. The assembly of that information must be selective and purposeful. We must identify the key information.

The Thomas and Beckford study "Adopted Children Speaking", a British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering publication of 1999, reveals that many children felt they had been denied details about their past, as well as information about the adoptive families to whom they were going. Although valuable information in the form of "life story" books can be available, many such books have not been available, and a great deal of information has been missing because it had not been kept up to date. I think that children should be able to obtain a full picture of their histories, albeit perhaps later in their lives, and such history needs to be kept in trust for them. The Bill addresses that issue.

The study also reports considerable dissatisfaction among adopters with the information they are given about children. They also complained about lack of information,

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court procedures and adoption allowances, but the two main complaints related to insufficient information about children's backgrounds--particularly their medical history--and the fact that some information was incorrect. The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) made some powerful points in the House on Monday about the need to provide information so that adoptive parents know what they are taking on.

Birth parents cannot be ignored. After all, it is from them that essential information must be obtained, and recorded accurately and objectively. If adopters or children receive a negative picture of the birth parents and their way of life, attitudes can be created that prejudice the child's view of his or her history and origins. Although this morning's debate has not focused on it, the question of the recording of information--to which my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden has so usefully drawn to our attention--is a vital part of the overall equation.

The Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness, had compliments heaped upon him on Monday from hon. Members on both sides of the House, including many Conservative Members, regarding his commitment to his Bill and the way in which he had brought it forward and was striving to maintain a bipartisan approach. I hope that his ministerial colleague at the Department, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), will be able to share in those plaudits through the way in which he addresses the Bill today.

Many foster children discover that it is an embarrassment to be a foster child and experience that embarrassment at a very young age. Those children like to pretend that they have real parents because they have a strong desire to have a proper family. This Bill, together with the Government's Bill, offers many of those children the potential to make their pretence a reality--to make their dreams come true, in effect. It is down to those of us who are close to the levers of power--indeed, we are getting closer by the day--and those who have the levers of power in their hands at the moment to adopt a bipartisan approach and, to use the Prime Minister's phrase, to strain every sinew on behalf of those children. I commend the Bill to the House.

1.7 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Denham): I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on her success in the private Member's ballot and on her choice of this topic for a private Member's Bill. I acknowledge her consistent interest in the issue, which she has shown again today. I would like to recognise and to pay tribute, as, in effect, hon. Members on both sides of the House have done, to the personal commitment of the Prime Minister to the issue of adoption. I do not think that anyone would question that he has been instrumental in ensuring that not just in my own Department, but in Departments across Government, issues of children's welfare and adoption in particular have been driven forward. I also pay tribute to the work of the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), who has done the hard slog in producing both the White Paper and the associated national standards and the Bill.

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We have had a good debate, as we did on Monday. The House can therefore be confident that our proceedings will be comprehensively ignored by the media and the world outside, which concentrate on affairs here only if we are having a big row with each other. We can draw some confidence from the debates on Monday and today that, as the Government Bill proceeds through the House, there is a commitment on both sides of the House to the proper scrutiny of that Bill and the many issues that have been raised today, including the issues raised by the hon. Member for Meriden, so that we get the legislation right.

Reference was made on Monday--I am afraid that, sitting here this morning, I have been unable to track it down in Hansard--to the dangers of legislation that has cross-party support. Someone referred to the Child Support Agency as a not terribly impressive example of both sides of the House basically agreeing with what the measure was about and not managing to get the detail correct. It is essential that, as the legislation on adoption goes through the House, we make sure that it is properly scrutinised, that all the issues are dealt with and that the right amendments are tabled and adopted.

We can be fairly certain that there is considerable expertise among hon. Members on both sides of the House--much more than I personally would claim to have on the issue. A number of hon. Members have been pursuing an interest in the topic over several years. Provided that we can bring that to bear on the legislation, we can make the once in a generation step forward to which hon. Members have referred.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner)--replying to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who suggested that adoption was a relatively recent invention--offered me a list of literary references, from Shakespeare to the Brontes and Dickens, to comparable arrangements. However, as my hon. Friend also thought that the final scenes of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" took place in Mexico, I shall not share those references.

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