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6.40 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): This is a good Bill that has rightly been welcomed by Members in all parts of the House. Some of the thinking goes back to the Children Act 1989.

The first such Bill was drawn up shortly before the Conservative Government lost office and, as Members have said, a similar measure was introduced in the last Parliament. I was privileged to serve on the Select Committee, under the distinguished chairmanship of the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), which contributed to changes introduced by this Bill.

I congratulate the hon. Members for Erewash (Liz Blackman) and for Stockport (Ms Coffey) on intelligent and characteristically interesting contributions, but I am pretty disgusted that the Liberal spokesman appeared to walk out of the Chamber without listening to the reply from the other side. Had he listened, he would have learned something.

The Secretary of State made the strong point that the situation among children in care is intolerable. Outcomes for such children are all too often awful: 40 per cent. of prisoners under 21 spent part of their childhood in care; a

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quarter of all girls in care become pregnant while they are our responsibility as wards of the state; huge numbers are on the streets; and a third of homeless people and a high proportion of children in care become drug addicts and end up paying for their habit by prostitution.

Mr. Dawson: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that adoption, while an extremely important placement option, is not the universal remedy for the ills of the care system? The Government have already introduced legislation and resources to address many problems in the system.

Mr. Brazier: I am glad to have given way to the hon. Gentleman, who is extremely knowledgeable on the subject. He is right that adoption is not a solution to all problems and that many other issues in the care system need to be addressed, but adoptions are a far more successful solution—more than 80 per cent. succeed—than all the other options within care.

As the hon. Member for Erewash said, the number of children adopted from care has improved, but it is important to recognise, as the Government have done publicly, that the figure of 5 per cent. each year is a low proportion, and represents only about 10 per cent. of children who have been in care for more than a year, although they are the true target pool. The figure is much lower than that in America, where the problems are worse for several reasons.

Ms Munn: On the number of children in care, is the hon. Gentleman aware that research shows that what matters is not whether they are adopted, but the permanency of their placement? Children who are placed permanently with foster carers can do as well as adopted children, provided that the placement is secure and well supported, hence my especial welcome for the new special guardianship orders.

Mr. Brazier: I will go three quarters of the way with the hon. Lady, if she can forgive my phrasing it like that. I, too, welcome special guardianship orders for certain categories of particularly difficult children. Having said that, bearing it in mind that foster parenting is very well resourced—

Mr. Dawson: What?

Mr. Brazier: Foster parenting is well resourced compared with adopting, which is very poorly resourced in most parts of the country. Even if the outcomes of long-term fostering and adoption are comparable, that still furthers the case for more adoption.

I shall give two brief examples of how much bad practice is still out there. Recently, "Jane" adopted two siblings in the south of England, and the contact arrangements require monthly meetings with their younger brother who is in long-term foster care. They like him and they all get on well, so he inevitably gets upset when they leave. The parents have applied to adopt him too. His social worker's response is that he needs assessing and the first step is to remove him from the stable foster home that he has been in for several years and put him in a new placement for reappraisal. Inevitably, he is showing signs of emotional disturbance.

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The second example is from Cambridge. A woman who has been approved for 14 months to adopt a child aged under five is still waiting for a match, although we are short of adopters. She has recently been told that she is unlikely to get a child because she lives on a main road and a child could be seen and recognised by the birth family in the area. Presumably, she remarked sarcastically, she cannot go shopping in Peterborough centre for the same reason. No attempts have been made to consider her for adopting a child from outside the area.

I do not want to knock all social workers—I am only too conscious of what a difficult and occasionally dangerous job social work is—but as previous speakers have said and as those recent examples show, there is a long way to go to change the culture.

Much has been made of the fact that a huge spectrum is involved, from a small number of extremely good local authorities dotted around the country that achieve remarkable placement rates to the larger number with poor outcomes. That is why I continue to argue that, in the worst cases, the Government should use the provisions already available to them to take adoption from some poorly performing authorities and give it to a neighbouring authority or a voluntary agency.

The House will forgive me for going into a shopping list of several individual items, because we have been round the circuit once in the past year. I am glad to see the new Minister in her place. She has already several times taken the trouble to contact the all-party adoption group, of which I am privileged to be co-chairman.

I referred to my first point during an intervention on the Secretary of State—the provisions on race, religion and culture in clause 1(5). I do not want to make the issue hugely controversial, but there is a serious question here. No Member in any part of the House suggests that the provisions are not sensible or that they are not matters that should be taken into account in any adoption where they are relevant to the child. However, although clause 1(2) says that the interests of the child are paramount, a court may be faced with clause 1(3), which says that delay is unreasonable. What if clause 1(5) is considered alongside those criteria?

Why cannot we include the words said by the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), in the Select Committee and by the Secretary of State on the Floor of the House rather than just having them on the record in Hansard? Considerations of race, culture, religion and so on must not be allowed to cause inordinate delay.

The hon. Member for Stockport nods. She is showing her usual robust common sense, although I hope that my saying that from these Benches will not damn her career. If it is clear that no suitable match will be found on those criteria, the time must have come to look for a good couple who do not match exactly, but who will give a child a loving home.

My second point relates to the need to protect damaged children and their new families from the birth parents. The hon. Member for Erewash said in a previous debate that if we are short of adopters, and want more to come forward, we must take account of the adoptive parents' interests. Over the past generation, there has been a trend in the courts towards adoption gradually becoming more open. A couple of senior social workers have complained about that to me, and in a sense one can understand why.

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It is sometimes hard to cut all ties when birth parents have failed, perhaps for reasons that were not entirely their fault. However, in a more extreme case, constituents of mine have adopted two little boys and are making a success of that adoption. One of the children had been kept in a cellar for so long that, by the time he was adopted aged seven, he still lacked the power of speech. The other had been left out in the cold so often and for so long that at one point it was thought that both his feet would have to be amputated. That was narrowly averted, but to this day when he is upset his parents hold his feet and warm them to comfort him.

I am not suggesting that such cases are typical, but it is desperately important that we make it clear to the courts that most children who are adopted from care are adopted because their birth circumstances were unsatisfactory. An adoption may be compromised by insisting on the release of information on the new, often brave, adoptive parents who take on the children whom, as the hon. Lady said, many are unwilling to adopt. The least that we owe such adoptive parents is a guarantee of secrecy.

To move from the anecdotal to the statistical, to the best of my knowledge, the country that has gone furthest down this route is Australia, where almost all adoptions are open and it is easy for birth parents to get information on the adopters. I frequently refer to Australia because it has developed many exciting ideas in the social field, but the one area in which it has severely failed is adoption. Adoption rates in Australia are low: only 500 children in the entire country were adopted last year.

We must discourage the courts from making provisions more open. We should protect the new adoptive family by preventing the birth family from finding out their addresses and details.

Mrs. Humble: The hon. Gentleman and I raised that issue when we last debated this subject. Most so-called open adoption in this country does not involve direct contact between the adoptive and natural parents. It involves postbox communication: the natural parents send a card or gift at Christmas or birthdays, and the social work department transmits it to the adoptive parents. The adoptive parents and the children they have adopted often benefit from that procedure. When we talk about open adoption, we must be clear that it does not usually involve face-to-face contact.

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