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Dr. Fox: It is mistaken to view the issue in isolation in the way that the hon. Lady describes. Emanating not least from Downing street at present is the view that wider social trends need to be taken into account—for example, what is the wider picture being given in a piece of legislation on the institution of marriage? As the Secretary of State rightly said, that issue will be widely discussed in Committee. I can already envisage a considerable amount of time in Committee being given to that issue, and I am sure that those hon. Members who will serve on the Committee are taking note.

It is an important principle of the Bill that a court must not make an order unless it considers that making the order would be better than not doing so. It is also clear from the Bill that the interests of the child should be not first, but paramount. In other words, they should outweigh all other considerations. Although many of us are in instinctive sympathy with that view, there is something of a conflict between paramountcy and reasonableness.

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I draw the Secretary of State's attention to the 1992 review, which recommended that the child's welfare should be paramount except when a court was deciding whether to dispense with parental consent. It added that

In view of the reservations raised by many of the organisations that have already given evidence on that point, it would be useful if the Minister could give us more detail on the Government's thinking.

Mr. Dawson: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that progress has been made in levelling the apparent gap by ensuring that the proposals in the placement orders meet the criteria set out in the Children Acts?

Dr. Fox: I am sure that that is correct. However, I am also sure that those applying the law will be looking for clear direction from Parliament on how it should be interpreted. After consultation with the Government's legal advisers, the Minister might feel that she cannot provide clarification tonight, but we will want it to be provided in Committee.

One striking development since the 1992 review has been the widespread acceptance of the need for pre- and post-adoption services. It is worth recalling that one in five adoptions fail and, as the Secretary of State pointed out, that is especially true when the child involved has special needs. Such cases involve great care in the selection process for adopters, but I am sure that I am not alone in continually wondering at the sheer commitment and downright goodness of those who adopt profoundly handicapped children. My experience as a doctor leaves me with no illusions about the difficulties that those parents face over the longer term, and the Committee will need to find answers to questions about the organisation and finance of the post-adoption services that they will need.

For example, who will be responsible for financing post-adoption services when a child moves from one part of the country to another, as is more likely with a national register in place? When local authorities are forced to provide services, will more money be made specifically available to them? Will that money be ring-fenced or will it be a "Robbing Peter to pay Paul" exercise, as some of them fear?

Then there is the question of entitlement to assessment. If the group entitled to assessment, including birth parents, can be extended by regulation in the way that the Bill stipulates, who will ensure that local facilities will not be overstretched with distortions of priority and pressure on resources? What will happen if someone is assessed as needing services but, as the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) pointed out, the local authority is under no duty to provide them? Will we not become involved in nothing more than a bureaucratic charade?

The Secretary of State referred to adoption allowances, but when will the Government provide us with more detail on exactly how they will work and on what the tax and benefit implications will be? How do Ministers envisage such a scheme working to ensure that, wherever possible, it is targeted to the requirement that siblings are kept together? Again, we shall want very much to explore that issue in Committee.

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We agree in principle with the Government about many other points, but need more detail about them. For example, the introduction of an appeals procedure is widely welcomed on both sides of the House, because there have been far too many stories in the press about perfectly decent people being turned down as adoptive parents on the most spurious grounds. However, the plans are still a little too vague. How will appeals be triggered; who will give leave to appeal to an independent body; and what is to stop every adoptive parent who has been turned down from seeking an appeal with the obvious potential for administrative chaos that that would entail? Who will pay the cost of appeals? If the adoption agencies are made to pay, they will be under pressure to avoid costs by pleasing the adoptive parent, even if the result is a less appropriate placement. How will they deal with that? We need greater clarification of that during the Bill's passage.

The problem of parental responsibility, especially in relation to stepfathers and unmarried fathers, is difficult, and I sympathise with the Government in having to grapple with it. It is right that consent is dealt with clearly and early on in the process. Many have expressed the view that there is a tension in the law between the Government's approach through bodies such as the Child Support Agency, which assume and enforce the financial responsibility of fathers, and parental responsibility as it relates to adoption. Like hon. Members on both sides of the House, I am aware of concerns that some fathers might inappropriately take parental responsibility to stop adoption. However, Ministers are right to continue on the path outlined in the Bill and not to back away. Inconsistency of principle does not make good law, however uncomfortable it might be in the short term.

We have reservations on one matter, and we will want to question Ministers closely on it in Committee. It relates to the restriction on access to birth records for adopted adults. The Bill will fundamentally alter the arrangements in force since enactment of the Adoption Act 1976, under which adopted adults enjoy the right to be given information necessary for them to obtain a copy of the original birth certificate. We all understand the sensitivities of birth parents and the possible effects that such disclosure can have on others, especially later children. However, those who are adopted surely have an absolute right to know who they are. We cannot and should not legislate away someone's basic identity. We shall certainly want the Government completely to rethink their proposals.

Much work needs to be done to scrutinise details of this long, 130-plus clause Bill. There will be much agreement, including on plans to improve the court system for the adoption process. We will want to hear more about that and how the national register, which we support, will operate. We will also want measures to be put in place for older children in care. They are often the most difficult to place. They face long delays and are most deprived of the values and ethos of the world beyond the care home. We need to find ways in which they can have more contact with families during their time in care, so that they are better prepared for life outside.

I am sure the House agrees that, above all, we need to enforce rigorous safeguards for children at all stages in the process. As mentioned at the beginning of the debate, the death of four-year-old John Smith, with 53 injuries,

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due to a failure to make the appropriate checks is a shocking and shameful indictment of the system. We must not allow a similar incident to happen again.

We welcome the planned changes to the law in light of the Kilshaw case and the restrictions on intercountry adoption. The unchecked trade in babies on the internet and elsewhere must disgust hon. Members on both sides of the House, and we will certainly welcome controls. We will give the Bill a fair wind and try to improve it further. We are dealing with some of the most vulnerable people in our society. They are often scarred, traumatised and afraid for themselves and their future. We must not allow politics, prejudices, bureaucracy or short-term convenience to stand in the way of them having a chance to experience a loving family and to participate in the fullness of life that we often take too much for granted. In this area of law making, perhaps above all others, Members of the House of Commons have an opportunity to give to needy and undervalued children something that they may not otherwise get—a second chance. We must not fail them.

5.54 pm

Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport): I very much welcome the Bill and the Government's commitment to improve adoption services for children and to deal with delays in the adoption process. I was privileged to sit on the Select Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), which took evidence on the Adoption and Children Bill introduced in the last Parliament. I am pleased that this Bill will also go to a Special Standing Committee, because that is a valuable experience.

Everyone has an opinion on adoption—prospective adopters, adopters, natural parents, extended families, people who were adopted as children and the general public. Few people will not know someone who has a direct or indirect experience of adoption. Some experiences are heart-rending. They include people who were adopted 30 years ago and have no right of access to information about their natural parents; families that are disturbed and traumatised by the sudden appearance of an adult who was placed for adoption as a child many years before; and people who are refused as adopters for what they believe is no good reason. On the other hand, we have the sad situation in which people who are approved as adopters cause harm and suffering to children placed with them.

Opinions about what should be in adoption law are as many and as varied as the individual experiences people have had. It is right that legislation should give proper consideration to those experiences, but we should not have an adoption law that attempts to balance often different and conflicting interests. I therefore welcome clause 1(2) which says:

or indeed her "life."

It is not the interests of the parents or prospective adopters, but the child's welfare that is placed above all other considerations.

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However, I, too, should like the definition of "the child's welfare" clarified. Clause 1(6) states:

I presume that the clause covers placement orders. Clause 20(2), which specifically refers to placement orders, says:

Those conditions are whether the child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm. Without those conditions being met, the order should not be made.

Clause 50 relates to parental consent. Placement orders dispense with consent. The clause sets out two conditions for overturning parental consent, one of which is that

If in granting a placement order the Government intend to apply the threshold of significant harm similar to that in a care order as set out in the 1989 Act, we need better clarification of that in clauses 1 and 50. If it is not their intention, clause 20 probably needs some attention.

I also welcome clause 1(3), which states:

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the delay in adopting children in care is still unacceptable. However, clause 5—this relates to an earlier point—specifically addresses the placement of children for adoption after a placement order is made. In other words, it recommends with whom children should be placed and gives due consideration to a number of matters. The clause does not make it clear that delay should also be a consideration when taking account of other factors, although I am sure that there is an assumption that that should be so. Delays in the court system can be addressed but, once an order has been granted, delays in adoption agencies making matches and moving the process forward also have to be addressed.

As I said, everybody has opinions about adoption, and mine are informed by the fact that prior to being elected to Parliament I was, like many of my colleagues, a social worker. I spent 10 years working in fostering and adoption. Most of the children whom we placed for adoption were under five, and most had had damaging experiences in their home environment. Most of the adopters were childless couples who would have wanted, in different circumstances, to adopt a baby if that had been possible.

The assessments that adoption officers have to make are complex and difficult. Not only do they have to consider the present needs of the child and assess what kind of family would meet them, which can be very complex, but in assessing families they must come to a conclusion about how they will respond in future to the challenges that their adopted child may present. That is a tough job, and it requires very good judgment.

It is good to start with a commitment from adoptive parents to love a child, but it is certainly not always enough, given the complex emotional problems that children can present in an adoptive placement. That is

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why post-adoption support is crucial, not only in the assessment of needs but in the provision of practical help. I very much welcome the Bill's recognition of that fact, which is a step forward.

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