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Mrs. Spelman: I have read the Government Bill carefully, and would be grateful for clarification. Will the two processes of placement and adoption take place one after the other, or does the Bill provide for twin-tracking where adoption is the likely outcome?
Mr. Denham: I am not entirely clear what the hon. Lady means by twin-tracking. Placement is part of the adoption procedure set out in the Bill. Perhaps I can write to her on that point. However, we share common ground in recognising that there are circumstances in which it should be possible to place a child for adoption successfully using a timetable faster than that set out for normal circumstances in the national standards. Regulations may tie things down too tightly, but I am sure that that issue can be examined in detail in Committee.
Adoptive families will benefit greatly from improvements to post-adoption support, for which provision is made in the Adoption and Children Bill. It is unacceptable that the provision of adoption services across the country is patchy and inconsistent; as many as one in five adoptive placements break down before the child is legally adopted. We cannot keep letting down children who have already gone through at least one family breakdown. Adoptive families need access to services that will support adoptive placements and help them to last.
Post-adoption support services that adoptive families may find useful include support groups, where they can meet adoptive families with similar experiences; counselling for adoptive children to help them understand their new circumstances; and support for adoptive siblings to help them to come to terms with a new brother or sister. That is why we want to place, for the first time, a clear duty on local authorities to make arrangements to provide adoption support services, including financial support.
Clause 1 deals with the provision of financial support. As I said earlier, we acknowledge the issues, but we believe that we should deal with them in regulation, and shall make those arrangements clear. Again, that can be worked through in detail when the Bill is discussed in Committee.
Clause 2 includes a right of appeal for adopters, prospective adopters and guardians ad litem. Our proposal is that we should build confidence in the adopter recruitment process by ensuring that prospective adopters are treated fairly at all times. We will take powers to set up a new independent review mechanism for prospective adopters who feel that they are being turned down unfairly. An independent body appointed by the Secretary of State will convene a review panel to re-examine the evidence and make a fresh recommendation to the agency. The adoption agency must then consider both the new recommendation and the recommendation of the original agency panel before making its final decision.
Prospective adopters will have a choice of review methods, but in practice most are likely to prefer the objective nature of the independent review mechanism. In some cases they may wish to go back to the original agency panel instead, to correct simple errors of fact.
There is a specific purpose behind the proposed mechanism. It will build confidence in the assessment process and encourage more prospective adopters. Adoption is a mainstream social services function, and it is appropriate for more general complaints about the adoption service provided by local authorities to be dealt with by the local authority social services complaints procedure. We are carrying out a thorough review of that procedure. We must make sure that it meets the needs of all of those who may need it, including those affected by adoption.
The hon. Lady's Bill is, as she said, much wider than the scope of the Government's Bill. She seems to be proposing a system under which any aspect of any decision at any point of the adoption process would be subject to independent review. That cuts across the principle that I set out earlier--that adoption is a mainstream local authority function and should be dealt with through those processes. A process whereby every facet of every part of every decision could be subject to independent review would hardly be likely to speed up the process of adoption and clear decision making. Again, I am sure that the matter will be examined in Committee.
The role of guardians ad litem is clearly set out in law. They are appointed in care order and contested adoption cases to provide the court with independent expert advice, and to represent and advise on the child's interest and welfare. They are not set up or empowered to act as some sort of independent inspectorate or regulator of social services, as the hon. Lady seemed to intend--although I may have misinterpreted her. There has been no call from guardians ad litem for an appeal mechanism such as her Bill sets out.
Mrs. Spelman: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Because of the existence of the two Bills, it is easy to be confused. When he says that the matter will be considered in Committee, is he saying that the provisions of my Bill will be considered in a special Select Committee, or is he speaking of the Government's Bill? I need to know that in order to decide whether to press the Second Reading motion to a Division.
Mr. Denham: The answer is that I have no control over the amendments that the Opposition might choose to table to the Government's Bill at the appropriate time. Clearly, all the issues raised by the hon. Lady are capable of being discussed as amendments to the Government's Bill. Procedurally, it is not possible to take both Bills forward at the same time, so it will be for her to decide what she wants to do with her own Bill. The issues that she wishes to raise could be tabled at the appropriate point in Committee as Opposition amendments to the Government's Bill, which received its Second Reading on Monday night. Beyond that, it is not for me to give advice on procedural matters.
We cannot commend the hon. Lady's private Member's Bill because we believe that adoption issues are better dealt with by the Government's Bill. As that Bill makes its way through the House, there will be more than enough opportunity for all the issues that were raised today to be discussed on the basis of amendments tabled by members of that Committee. I have no doubt that the Government will want to ensure that all those issues are properly considered, but I am afraid that I cannot commend the hon. Lady's Bill to the House.
Mrs. Spelman: With the leave of the House, I should like to respond to the Minister's speech, to which I listened attentively. I listened especially carefully to his final remarks, which dealt with the specific content of the Bill. Of course, I recognise that the existence of two Bills that deal with adoption--mine and the Adoption and Children Bill--can result in some ambiguity, but I hope that all hon. Members will accept that this debate will at least help to ensure that something will happen in the very near future. That is the important point. Furthermore, if my Bill was a catalyst for the Government's Bill, that would also make it worth while.
The fact that we are debating both Bills at what appears to be the 11th hour before a general election increases the chance of their prompt reappearance in the next Parliament. Obviously, it is arrogant of any Government of any persuasion to assume that they will be re-elected or to think that any business that falls before an election will automatically reappear afterwards. Such assumptions cannot be made, but we have pledged that when and if we are elected, we will announce an adoption Bill in our first Queen's Speech.
The Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), was asked about that on Monday night, but he could not make a commitment. As we heard today, however, the Government are obviously minded to roll their Bill forward into the special Select Committee that was mentioned in the programme motion that was debated on Monday, although it appears that their timing will be knocked asunder by the general election.
Some of the specific questions that were asked on Monday about the way in which the special Select Committee would work were not answered, but are pertinent to the position outlined today by the Minister,
In the bipartisan spirit that has been apparent today, it would have been appropriate for the Government to acknowledge the purpose of my Bill--if not its exact wording, which might not have been as refined as it could have been, because of lack of time--and to think about it, perhaps with a view to tabling their own amendments. It is perfectly possible for a constructive Opposition to provide the sort of nuts and bolts that were mentioned by the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), and to make general improvements to the structure that has been put in place by the Government of the day.
I was not entirely satisfied that the Government understood what I meant about the importance of record keeping. The Minister sought to placate me by referring to the better statistical monitoring that the Government have established for adoption, but it is not so much the bare statistics about which I am worried. I am more anxious about the fact that those statistics concern individuals--real people and real children. We are all aware of the number of sad cases that have occurred. We all know the names of the children whose tragedies have been described in the press. For example, Rikki Neave was mentioned. Those names stick in our memory because we know that the system failed them. I want to ensure that a child is not lost in care and does not simply drop through the system. Statistical record keeping and monitoring are important but not enough. I am therefore disappointed that the Minister rejected that aspect of the Bill.
I feel strongly that the Government miss the point about independence in appeals. I was at pains to stress that, in a complaints procedure or an appeals system, it is vital for those who want to make a complaint to believe that it will be heard objectively. Simply saying that there is an appeals procedure that is run by the
I am not happy that the Government are unwilling to commend the Bill. I remain principally motivated by the child, for whom we are trying to eradicate damaging delay. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West used a phrase that stuck in my mind. He said that adoption postponed is often adoption denied.
The Government's unwillingness to accept or commend the Bill means that we overlook the fact that delays will remain in the system. The principal sufferers are the children whose cases several hon. Members have eloquently pleaded this morning. I therefore wish to press the matter to a Division.