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Ms Shipley: Does my hon. Friend agree that prospective adoptive parents need to be provided with all the information regarding the child's background, including any assessment that has been carried out? It is only fair and proper that they know everything about the child.

Ms Coffey: I totally agree with my hon. Friend. When I was an adoption worker some years ago, we tried our best to do that, and I am sure that matters have improved a great deal in recent years. Of course, adoptive families need the widest possible information about the child and the background.

We can introduce the best legislation in the world, but it will not, by itself, improve adoption practice. The quality of assessments, the matching of children with families and the support that is given determine the outcome of adoption placements. We need to train and skill the adoption workers who make those crucial assessments. I worked in adoption during a time that now attracts heavy criticism for its politically correct decisions, and I have heard that criticism made by Opposition Members in previous debates. I refer, of course, to the "same race" debate.

At that time, we believed that an important factor determining the success of a placement was matching the child to a family who reflected the child's race and culture. I still believe that it is an important factor. Unfortunately, however, there is not always a family who will provide that match. The national adoption register, another innovation, will increase the possibility of a match because there will be a wider range of adoptive families from which to choose.

I accept that there were delays during those years, but if at that time adoption workers had been made aware of the importance of not causing undue delay and of the difficulties that delay can cause a child, we may well have considered other options earlier. I am not taking a shot at the previous Conservative Government, who presided over that state of affairs—well, I suppose I am really. I am simply making the point that we have to ensure that adoption workers have the best possible information to make their assessment and the best possible skills with which to perform that complex and difficult task.

I know that the Government are making available £47.5 million for social care training, which is another very welcome investment in social work. Will any of that money be used specifically for further training of adoption workers or, indeed, of adopters, who also need training to support often difficult and damaged children?

I very much welcome the new provision in clause 104 to timetable court proceedings, and I welcome the announcement that, from 1 October, there will be specialist adoption centres, particularly as Stockport county court is to be such a centre. I welcome also the document, "Adoption Proceedings—A New Approach", issued by the Lord Chancellor, which aims to reduce delay and inefficiency in adoption court proceedings. However, I must point out that timetabling was also a measure in the Children Act 1989, and I am not sure that by itself it achieved the desired reduction in unnecessary delays.

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Are there any proposals to monitor court proceedings in special adoption courts to see how effective timetabling has been?

The Bill is very welcome, and I congratulate the Government on timetabling the Second Reading so early in the Session. It demonstrates their commitment to ensuring that children in care are given the best possible opportunities in life.

6.6 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): There is widespread consensus throughout the Chamber on large parts of the Bill, and I will not repeat what the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said about the areas on which there is broad agreement.

We have benefited from the expertise of the hon. Members for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley), for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), for Stockport (Ms Coffey) and for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), and we will do so again in Committee.

One of the more telling statements made about the Bill is that it is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. That says a great deal about Parliament's willingness to legislate on adoption at leisure, over years and decades. While Parliament has been slow, changes in family structures and the needs of potential adoptees have outstripped the ability of the system, governed by legislation and regulation, to keep up.

Having said that, one cannot accuse this Government of being slow to introduce legislation following the Prime Minister's expression of interest in the matter. The Government have acted quickly and, moreover, they have been willing to accept that the rapid introduction of the Bill may mean that it does not contain all the answers. That is why I share the hon. Member for Woodspring's view that the attention of a Select Committee was welcome. The differences between this Bill and an earlier, lapsed attempt demonstrate not only that events have moved on but that the Government were able to take account of points arising from the evidence in the truncated Select Committee proceedings. I recognise the work done by Back Benchers on private Member's Bills, such as that in the name of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), which became an Act in 1999.

It is appropriate on Second Reading to note that our main aim must be to prevent the need for adoption where possible. Support structures in education, health care and social services must be put in place to help people become good parents so that there is less requirement for children to be taken into care. Adoption has been described as the last resort. That is unfair, but there is a recognition that a care home should be the last resort. An increasing realisation of that has changed the population in care, and made it conversely more difficult to place looked-after children with adoptive families.

That is why the Government's record on increasing the proportion of children in care who are adopted is particularly commendable. We must be careful not to get carried away, because the increase has been small, from 3.8 per cent of children in care in 1997-98 to 5.2 per cent last year. None the less, that increase should be

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acknowledged, given the change in the population of children in care that occurs as greater efforts are made to avoid their going into care in the first place.

The Secretary of State mentioned the difficulty in respect of older children. About two thirds of those adopted from care are aged less than five and only 5 per cent. are aged 10 or above. Although the average period children spend in care before being adopted is less than three years—two years and nine months, according to figures from the Library—more than a third spend more than three years in care before being adopted. The longer a child is in care and the older they are when adopted, the more difficult placement becomes.

To attack the issue holistically and to increase the number of adopters it is important to increase the status of those who adopt and those who perform magnificent work as foster carers. I welcome the Secretary of State's emphasis on increasing their status and his acknowledgement that they provide a tremendous public good, as well as a personal good to both parties involved. It is broadly welcome that the paramountcy of the child's welfare throughout its life has been written into legislation. Against that background, the aim should be to ensure less hassle and delay for both the child and the adoptive parents.

Part of tackling both those issues is to widen the pool of prospective carers and adoptive parents. Ageism should have no place in measures taken under the legislation and the new procedures. If parents would otherwise be good adopters, and as long as other criteria are met, artificial criteria relating to age and health should not be set. Too often we hear of arbitrary cut-off dates that are, in effect, discrimination on the basis of age, as well as accounts of value judgments being made as to the ability of adoptive parents to carry out their role based on concerns about their health, but with presumption and prejudice taking precedence over proper evaluation of their abilities.

I tend to share the view that racial differences need not be an automatic barrier to adoption, but to use that argument to attack so-called political correctness undermines the fundamental point. If the hon. Member for Woodspring is right and race should not be a barrier, I repeat the question put by the hon. Member for Stourbridge to both Front-Bench teams: should marital status be a barrier, as it currently is, to joint adoption? That question was not answered by either the Secretary of State or the Conservative spokesman, and I cannot understand why not—it has been floating around in the ether for long enough.

I am prepared to put on the record the view of Liberal Democrats: we think that unmarried couples should have a right to adopt jointly. If Labour and Conservative Front Benchers address that issue, we will make better progress in Committee. The Secretary of State claimed that he wanted to have a debate on the issue, and he will get one, but his comment suggests to me that he has not yet decided whether to support our point of view.

Just as marital status and race should not be barriers to adoption as long as adoptive parents meet the relevant criteria and the welfare of the child is paramount, the sexuality of adoptive parents need not be relevant. It is important to recognise that times have changed since previous legislation was passed. I hope that we can persuade the Government to change their position on that point.

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The Secretary of State mentioned the ten-minute Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths)—a Bill that I and other Back Benchers supported. During the debate, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) set out what he considered was the Government's view, stating that the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), had assured him in a previous debate

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