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Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): In such difficult circumstances, grandparents are often among those who step in, and a considerable financial strain may be placed on them. They may have made provision for their retirement and suddenly find themselves bringing up grandchildren and having to deal with various problems, possibly including drug abuse. Will anything in the Bill assist such people financially? Will they receive allowances in the longer term? Financial help is available to foster parents, but not to adoptive parents.

Mr. Milburn: That is true. When a child enters a new adoptive family, it is often hard going. Things have

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changed since the 1950s and 1960s, when most adopted children were babies under one year old. Today, that applies to only about 10 per cent. Most are older kids, and many are pretty difficult. A huge strain is placed on adoptive families, the overwhelming majority of whom do a brilliant job. We should record our thanks not just to adoptive parents but, as the hon. Gentleman implied, to wider families.

One of the new provisions in the Bill is the granting of more support to adoptive families, including—for the first time—financial support. It is important for everyone's needs to be assessed properly, not just those of adoptive parents but those of the wider family.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I welcome what the Secretary of State has said, but let me give an example from my constituency. A woman of 71 is rearing a grandchild on her own, and doing a number of part-time jobs to support him. She is having trouble persuading anyone in the benefits system that she should receive some recognition beyond the basic provision of child benefit for performing a role that is relieving the taxpayer of a potentially enormous burden.

Mr. Milburn: If the hon. Gentleman writes to me about the specifics of the case, either I or the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), will look into it. It seems to me, however, that that is a duty that the social services authority in his area, Kent county council, should be discharging. If it is not, I will gladly investigate; but the social services authority should co-ordinate the various kinds of input that should be being made.

The steps that we have taken so far are designed to make adoption easier and quicker, but, as we all know, adoption is a legal process. Securing lasting improvements in adoption services therefore requires far-reaching legal change, and that is what the Bill seeks to achieve. The British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering said of it:

Current adoption legislation, the Adoption Act 1976, is outdated. Some of it, indeed, is based on 1950s legislation. It is also inconsistent with the Children Act 1989. This Bill seeks to overhaul completely the legal framework for adoption in England and Wales. Some of its measures apply to Scotland, and some may in future also apply to Northern Ireland.

The Bill draws on the draft Adoption Bill first introduced in 1996. It also goes further than the Adoption and Children Bill that we introduced in March this year, which fell when the general election was called. I place on record my gratitude for the contribution that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House made in the Select Committee that considered the first Bill. I believe that the current Bill is better because of them. Indeed, the House authorities would do well to look at the Select Committee approach for Bills that by and large command cross-party support. There will be differences about detail, but when there is consensus on the general thrust, such an approach should be taken because it makes for better legislation.

I propose to build on the approach that we took when the Bill was first introduced by seeking leave to send the Bill to a Special Standing Committee. That will provide

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an opportunity for those outside the House with real expertise in this area to give their views on the new measures that we propose.

It may be helpful to highlight some of the main provisions of the Bill. Adoption is and must be first and foremost a service for children. Clause 1 makes the welfare of the child, in childhood and later life, the paramount consideration for the court or adoption agency in making any decision relating to adoption. That brings the law on adoption for the first time into line with the law in the Children Acts.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Pursuing the entirely laudable aim of extending the use of adoption to children in the care system will mean that older children will be adopted from care. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the voices of those older children will be heard loudly and clearly throughout the adoption process?

Mr. Milburn: That is extremely important. I will come later to the special provisions in the Bill for that category of looked-after children. At the moment, there is a harsh choice for older kids in the adoption system: they must either go through mainstream adoption and therefore sever all legal ties with the birth family, or stay in care or foster care. That is why we have looked at introducing the special guardianship order to open up some more choices. That will be particularly pertinent to older children who perhaps do not want to sever links or legal ties with their birth family.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): When I have discussions with older children in care, they often tell me that they do not want to go to a family because they have had dreadful experiences of family life and much prefer to remain in good-quality residential care. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, in listening to the voice of the child, he recognises that for some children residential care is the right answer? There are many good-quality residential homes that look after children.

Mr. Milburn: That is broadly right. There will always be some children for whom that sort of care is appropriate and right, but we must change the starting point for how we make decisions. For me, the starting point should be about trying to provide permanence, stability, and a loving and caring family for the child. Sometimes, the system has not operated in that way.

My hon. Friend is right that there will be different circumstances for different individuals. For some, adoption or the special guardianship order will not be the right route, but our starting point should be that we will seek for children in care precisely what we seek for our own children: a loving family and some permanence in their lives.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): Will my right hon. Friend explain why an unmarried couple might not provide a loving family for an adopted child? The child should be put first. If the most suitable family are unmarried parents—perhaps a couple with children of their own in a long-established relationship—meet all other criteria and are absolutely right for that particular child, why does the couple have to be married?

Mr. Milburn: We should debate those issues. The Bill provides an opportunity for precisely that. The Bill does

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not alter in any way, shape or form the current law, which says that single people or married couples are the only ones who can adopt. With all due respect to my hon. Friend, who is very knowledgeable about these issues, ultimately it is not for her, me or any other right hon. or hon. Member to decide who is or is not an appropriate prospective parent. That must be for the courts. It is important, however, that we debate those issues.

As my hon. Friend knows, last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) introduced new proposals on registerable partnerships in her Relationships (Civil Registration) Bill. It is important that the Government consider our response to them and any implications that they might have for current or future adoption law. I think that we should debate those issues, and the Special Standing Committee will provide an opportunity for that. We shall undoubtedly hear many different representations, and we shall then have to respond to them.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): We should debate those issues, and I hope to say something on them tonight.

The Secretary of State has not answered the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley). The Government introduced the Bill, and in opening this debate, he should express the Government's view on their current proposals. Is it the Government's view that the legislation should be passed in its current form or amended?

Mr. Milburn: Although we would not have introduced the legislation unless we believed that these were broadly the right proposals—that must be the case—we want to commit the Bill to a Special Standing Committee precisely so that we can invite views from outside the House. Undoubtedly, that Committee will hear many different views, and ultimately it and the Government will have to decide whether the Bill's current proposals are the right way forward. It is sensible to debate those issues rather than pretend that they do not exist.

It is in the interests of the child that delays to adoption be designed out of the system. Children should not be left waiting indefinitely for the so-called perfect family on spurious grounds or because of a perverse sense of what is politically correct. The House will be aware of cases in which prospective adopters have been told that they cannot adopt apparently because they are too old, too overweight or even too middle class. Whatever the warped logic of those who introduce those blanket bans, the fact is that such bans fail to put the interests of the child first. Such bans put prejudice first, and that must fundamentally change. Our national standards made it clear that they have no place in a modern adoption system.

The Bill goes further than that by making it clear that although all agencies must of course give due consideration to the child's background while placing a child for adoption, there is none the less an obligation on the courts and all the other agencies involved to bear it in mind at all times that delay is likely to prejudice rather than enhance the child's welfare. Of course the best adoptive placement for a child would reflect religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural or linguistic heritage, but such a placement is best only if it can be found

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without unnecessary or harmful delay. What counts, and what the Bill enshrines, is that the interests of the child must come first.

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