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Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): I welcome the fact that the Bill provides for a duty on adoption service providers to provide an assessment service, but it does not provide for a duty on adoption services to provide a service once the assessment has been made. Is that not likely to result in a postcode lottery in the provision of services?

Mr. Milburn: Some local authorities make appropriate adoption support services available, including a proper assessment of need, and they should all do so. Ultimately, however, the local authorities run the service, not me or any of us, so they must decide who needs what level of support.

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We will consult widely on eligibility criteria and publish guidance in due course about how financial support, in particular, should operate. Some families will have a greater need than others; that is simple and self-evident. Ultimately, local authorities must take those decisions, which is why we are making available specific extra resources for them, certainly in England, to ensure that they can discharge their functions. The £66 million that we are putting in over this year, next year and the year after will be a considerable boost to local authority coffers when it comes to adoption services. Out of that, they will need to enact the new provisions and decide which families should receive financial support, and at what level.

Mr. Dawson: I accept all that my right hon. Friend has said. Would it be appropriate to have an independent review mechanism for people who are turned down for adoption support along the same lines as that provided for prospective adopters?

Mr. Milburn: There are two important points. First, there is an existing complaints procedure, as my hon. Friend knows. We have listened to representations about the creation of a new adoption ombudsman and our view is that adoption is in essence a mainstream social services function. It thus seems right that if there are complaints about specific aspects of decision making in relation to adoption they should be dealt with through the mainstream complaints procedures. Incidentally, I think that those procedures need sharpening—they need to be quicker. As he well knows, it can take months, if not longer, to deal with complaints. That builds delay into the procedures—into the very process of ensuring that a potential adoptive family is matched with a child for adoption.

Secondly, we are introducing an independent review mechanism under the Bill. That concerns not so much the level of adoption allowances for families but, for example, whether a family has been inappropriately turned down as adopters. At present, the system does not incorporate such independence. As my hon. Friend and I know from our constituency experience, that is a real source of grievance for many prospective adopters. It is right that we build in independent review throughout the system, whether of the provision of information to adopted children about their birth families, or of decisions to place a child with a particular family. They are difficult issues.

Hon. Members often criticise local authorities and others who discharge such functions—sometimes even the Government make such criticisms—but we should make no bones about the fact that they do a difficult job. The issues are difficult and emotionally fraught. Not only must we get the process—and the law in regard to who should or should not be adopted—right, we must build in independent safeguards throughout the system. That is what we have tried to do. We shall be happy to hear views on how the Bill's provisions for independent review could be strengthened.

Comprehensive reform of adoption law is long overdue. Children and families can be affected throughout their lives by delay and dysfunction in the adoption system. The Bill seeks to take action on both fronts.

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The Bill is part of a wider package of measures that the Government are taking to improve opportunities for children in our society. Whatever their family structure and whatever their family history, children only get one chance to grow up. Loving and stable families are the basis for the strong society that we want to create. So we will continue to invest resources to improve the life chances of children and families, whatever their background or circumstances, through measures such as the working families tax credit, the minimum wage, sure start, quality protects, family- friendly employment legislation and this Bill.

Our ambition for any child must be the same as our ambition for every child, and the same as our ambition for our own children: a safe and sound family life, where children are loved and given the support to do well for themselves and to grow up to be responsible and loving adults; a stable and permanent future, with the security of parents whose sole interests are the welfare of that child; and a decent start in life, with each generation of adults seeking a better future for the next. Those values underpin the Bill. The measure is better for the scrutiny that it has already received in the House. I believe that it will considerably enhance the life chances of some of the most vulnerable children in our society.

I commend the Bill to the House.

5.39 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring): There will be a large measure of agreement about the Bill on both sides of the House. Certainly, a change in the adoption law has been a long time evolving. The Bill has its origins in the Conservative Government's review that took place in 1992, which, as the Secretary of State correctly said, resulted in a draft Bill in 1996. I want to take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) for her private Member's Bill, which gave a push to adoption reform last year.

I add my thanks to those who served on and gave evidence to the Select Committee that considered the Adoption and Children Bill in the previous Parliament. We would all do very well to learn the lessons of a Bill that was given a good deal of pre-legislative scrutiny. Almost all hon. Members would recognise that a better Bill is now in front of us than was considered previously. It has been a very useful constitutional exercise.

Notwithstanding the broad agreement in the House, adoption legislation is always very difficult because it represents a complex balance of interests—a balance between the rights of the adopters and the birth parents, with the interests of the child always paramount. That balance also involves speed of access, with a rigorous commitment to quality in assessment. Adoption also involves balancing the geographical mismatch between those parents who want to adopt a child and the children who are put up for adoption, with the minimum possible disruption to the child. That is especially important where children may not have contact with their natural parents, but may have contact with members of their extended family. Minimal disruption is very much to be hoped for in those cases. That is especially true when there is contact with natural siblings, which needs to be maintained wherever possible.

We very much welcome the presumption in the Bill that delay is generally prejudicial to the child's welfare. That is all the more important because the proportion of

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children adopted from care has increased from 7 per cent. in 1975 to more than 50 per cent. now. However, I am sure that the Secretary of State would want me to reassert that speed is by no means the most important aspect of adoption and that, in this legislative process, we must focus on the appropriateness of the placing and the outcome for the child.

It is right to aim for higher levels of adoption, but an obsession with targets for local authorities, which are under pressure to meet their numbers, will not necessarily produce a better system. As we have seen in other areas, the Government have a rigid obsession with numerical targets. I hope that the Minister who responds to the debate will give us a guarantee that there will be no question of imposing financial or other penalties where local authorities fail to meet adoption targets set by central Government.

As has been said already, we fully understand the decision to give due consideration to a child's racial and cultural origins. That is especially true where the child is older and may have a very clear view of who he or she actually is. However, there must be no hard and fast rule because that could exclude perfectly good adoptive parents on the ground of their race, and I am sure that all hon. Members would find that utterly offensive. We need to take a commonsense approach, given the sort of society in which we now live.

I spoke to representatives of an agency this morning and discussed the case of a white couple adopting a black child. As they said, it is much more sensible for that to occur in an urban setting where there is clearly an acceptance of a much more multi-ethnic society than in a rural setting where a child might feel much more exposed. We need to understand those sensitivities, banish the politically correct brigade's nonsense and recognise that we have to deal with cultural and racial issues sensitively, but that misplaced political ideology can all too easily stand in the way of children's welfare.

Ms Shipley: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would represent misplaced ideology to state that a couple had to be married to adopt if they fitted all the other criteria, the child was put first and it was the best place for the child? Would not a PC ideology of a particular sort stop adoption because of a lack of marriage?

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