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Mr. Brazier: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way again. Although that was the fourth or fifth occasion on which we have had those welcome remarks from a Minister, the Bill still does not specifically address that issue. Clause 1 makes it clear that the wishes of the child are paramount, but clause 1(5) presents a long shopping list including
Mr. Milburn: If the hon. Gentleman wishes to serve on the Standing Committee[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) tells me that he does. If so, the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) is welcome to table whatever amendments he likes. Such considerations are in the Bill because they are importantbut not so important that they must be followed to the detriment of the interests of the child. As we make clear in our national standards, which we want all adoption agencies and local authorities to adopt, in the end, it is the interests of the child that must count. They must come first. Personally, I cannot see why a child should be detainedfor detention it too often isin care, simply because the search for the so-called perfect family goes on. We must change that attitude now.
Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) rose
Mr. Milburn: I shall give way one more time, but then I must make progress.
Mr. Shaw: Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a danger of sending mixed messages to social workers undertaking assessments? We heard earlier about the harrowing case mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper), and we must ensure that rigorous assessments are undertaken. At the same time, we say that we do not want to put unnecessary hurdles in the way of potential adopters and we want to speed the process. We all welcome that, but is my right hon. Friend confident that the national guidelines will satisfy both those potentially conflicting aims?
Mr. Milburn: I do not think that there is a conflict between those two objectives. Indeed, I could point to evidence from some local authorities with very high standards that do not take short cuts on quality but still undertake the adoption process in a timely manner. We have to get the balance right, and I do not think that it is right yet. Too many children languish in care when they need to be placed with an adoptive family that can give them the stability that they need in their lives.
If the hon. Member for Canterbury cares to look at the very first clause in the Bill, "Considerations applying to the exercise of powers", he will see that subsection (3) says:
As a key part of our drive to reduce delay in the adoption process, we have already established an adoption register for England and Wales. The register holds information on children waiting to be adopted, and on approved adoptive families across the country waiting to adopt. The information on the register will be used to suggest families for a child where a local match cannot be found within an agreed time, or where the child needs to move away from the area. The Bill places the register on a statutory footing. It also provides the flexibility to expand the register to cover alternative forms of permanent placement for children.
The register on its own, however, will not make adoption easier or quicker. The legal process itself can be laborious, slow and frustrating for all concerned. Unnecessary delays are not in the interests of prospective adopters or those of the child, so the Bill includes further measures to cut delays in the legal process by requiring courts to draw up timetables for adoption cases and issue any directions necessary to ensure that the timetables are met.
As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), adoption will not be suitable for all children. Older children may not want legal separation from their birth parents, even though they may not want to live with them. Adoption may not be the best option for other children, such as those who are being cared for permanently by members of their wider family.
At present, children have only one choice of legal permanence outside the care system: mainstream adoption. The Bill introduces a further choice: new special guardianship orders. They give permanence to the child, by giving day-to-day responsibility for his or her care to the special guardian without severing all legal ties with the birth family. That new flexibility will give new opportunities to children who have been bypassed by the current adoption laws.
In the interest of the child, I am also determined to tighten the controls on advertising, payments and intercountry adoption. Right hon. and hon. Members will recall the internet twins case earlier this year. Adoption is a service for children, not for profit. It should happen in the interests of the child, not as some form of commercial transaction.
The Bill therefore makes a number of major changes to the laws on intercountry adoption. It will build on the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999. We have already actioned provisions in the 1999 Act to make it an offence for a British resident to bring a child from another country into the UK for the purpose of adoption, unless they are already approved adopters. It is also now illegal for anyone other than a local authority or a registered voluntary adoption agency to assess and approve prospective adopters. Privately commissioned home studies can now no longer be accepted as part of the adoption process.
The Bill goes further in strengthening the law on intercountry adoptions. First, it will introduce a new offence where a child is brought into the UK after being adopted overseas by a British resident within the previous six months without the adopters following the proper approved procedure. Secondly, it will put in place tougher penalties for those not following the proper procedures. The maximum penalty for those adopting overseas or bringing a child into the country for the purposes of adoption will be raised from three months' imprisonment at present to a maximum of 12 months. Those who break the law could face the maximum jail sentence, an unlimited fine or both.
Thirdly, the Bill includes a new provision that will allow the Government to ensure that adoption orders made overseas will be recognised in the UK only when the systems in the overseas country meet criteria set out in regulations here. The criteria will include ensuring that proper consents have been given by the birth parents, that the prospective adopters are suitable to adopt and that profit has not been made.
Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring): Why have the Government chosen a six-month gap, as the Secretary of State just mentioned? Why not three months or nine? Was there a legal reason for that choice?
Mr. Milburn: Six months seemed an appropriate half-way house to us, but I am happy for the issue to be discussed because it is important and needs to be examined during the passage of the Bill. As the hon. Gentleman knows, at present we have a list of eligible countriesthe so-called designated listthat includes the US. Several countries propose to adopt the Hague convention on the protection of children. Indeed, we hope to be able to ratify that convention some time next year. The US has not yet ratified the convention and we will need to ensure that there is no gap between those countries that have adopted the Hague convention and those that have not, which might inadvertently put children at risk. Following the internet twins case, we have reviewed the designated list and will introduce measures if we think that that is appropriate.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I intended to ask a similar question to that asked by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), and I did not understand the Secretary of State's answer about the six-month limit. I would be grateful if that point could be clarified in Committee, or preferably before, because it was raised with me by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), who cannot be present for this debate. He wanted to know where the six-month limit came from because he was the sponsor of the original Bill.
Mr. Milburn: I am happy for the point to be clarified in the debate today or in Committee. I presume that the hon. Gentleman is another volunteer for the Committee.
The Bill takes two further steps better to protect the welfare of children from exploitation. It will introduce tougher penalties for those who seek to circumvent the safeguards for arranging adoptions and payments for domestic and intercountry adoptions. It will double the penalties, with up to six months in prison, a £10,000 fine or both. Importantly, it introduces new safeguards for advertising children for adoption. Advertising can,
The Bill, therefore, amends the existing restrictions on advertising in the Adoption Act 1976. Anyone other than an approved adoption agency who publishes or distributes an advertisement for the adoption of a child in England and Wales will be guilty of an offence. On conviction, the individual would be liable for imprisonment for up to three months or a fine of £5,000 or both.
Offline and, importantly, online advertising through the internet will be subject to the new restrictions. Advertising via the internet will need to be compatible with the e-commerce directive on which the Government are consulting. When that consultation is complete, we will ensure that the Bill reflects it appropriately.
Most children are adopted from this country rather than from countries abroad, but adoption support services across the country are patchy and inconsistent. Too often, adoptive families feel that they have to fight the system. It is little wonder, then, that nearly one in 10 adoptive placements break down before the child is legally adopted. Children with special needs or challenging backgrounds in particular become less likely to be adopted because of inadequate support for their prospective adoptive parents. Children in search of adoptive parents have often already gone through at least one family breakdown. In my view, the system cannot continue to let those children or their prospective families down.
The families deserve more support. The Bill tackles the postcode lottery in adoption support services. To ensure that high quality services are available everywhere, the Bill requires adoption support agencies to register with the National Care Standards Commission in England and the National Assembly in Wales. Provision of adoption support services outside this regulatory framework will become a criminal offence.
The Bill also introduces a new duty on local authorities across the country to make arrangements for the provision of adoption support services, including financial support. There will also be a duty to provide a support service for special guardianship placements.
The Bill includes a new right for all those directly affected by adoption to an assessment of their needs for adoption support services. It establishes a new independent review mechanism that will be available for prospective adopters who feel that they are being turned down unfairly. We will consult a wide range of agencies and organisations in developing the independent review mechanism and the regulations to underpin it.