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Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): The hon. Gentleman tempts me. Will he not admit that one of the biggest pressures on social services departments and, in particular, on child care is caused by the fact that councils are spending some £1 billion above standard spending assessment—£1 billion more than his Government think that they should spend on social services, including child services? Is that not the real problem at the moment?

Mr. Dawson: It is certainly a significant problem, with which I shall deal at length later. However, if we need such services and if they are to work properly, they must be funded properly.

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We have already heard some examples of the way in which social workers are viewed. I do not think that enough people will be recruited to perform this professional task—a task that requires real dedication, commitment, skill and tenacity—until the status of social work rises tremendously. I experienced life in social work under the last Tory Government and, like many of my colleagues, I felt that the profession was being denigrated and brought down. We are making progress, but there is a long way to go.

Tim Loughton: This was not intended to be a very political or controversial Bill, but will the hon. Gentleman admit not only that the gap between SSA and spending was never remotely as wide during those 18 bountiful years, but that the number of people applying to become social workers and take on child care responsibilities has fallen by some 50 per cent. over the past four or five years? Never was there such a manning problem as there is now, in any of those 18 years.

Mr. Dawson: That is partly a problem of the public sector across the board at a time when the economy is going well and there are many more opportunities. When there are more opportunities for better paid and less stressful jobs, the attractions of social work pall. The Government must get to grips with that, and do something about pay levels and the standing of people coming into an important profession that is carried out in difficult, strenuous and challenging circumstances.

I agree that this should not be a party political football, but all today's speakers have professed their commitment to meeting children's needs, observing their best interests, supporting adoptive parents and recognising that people operate in very stressful circumstances. It must be professional people who take on such a delicate task and become involved in the biggest decisions it is possible to make outside the acute medical sector—crucial decisions that will have a tremendous bearing on individuals throughout their lives.

I make a last, tiny, party political point. On a personal note, I am delighted to be able to take part in this Second Reading debate. I missed out on the Bill when it came before the House in the spring because I had the pressing matter of the sixth smallest Labour majority in the country to defend. Now resplendent with the fourth smallest Labour majority, relaxing into the comfort provided by those 481 excellent souls, I hope, like the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), to play a full part in the passage of the Bill, which I am pleased to note has been developed by previous discussion. The Bill should receive support from throughout the House. The quality of the debate so far shows that we can make more progress collectively.

The Bill is well named as the Adoption and Children Bill because it puts the needs of children over and above those of any of the adults concerned and at the heart of the process. In accordance with the key principle of the Children Acts, the welfare of the child will be paramount under the Bill.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): On that point, does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the provisions for third-country adoption may be fine for many countries, but they place children in countries that

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do not have, and are unlikely ever to have, our infrastructure at a grave disadvantage when it comes to finding adoptive parents from this country?

Mr. Dawson: Intercountry adoption is another delicate and difficult matter, but it is a vital principle that people operate not only to the Hague convention, but to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Two countries in the world have so far not supported the UN convention—Somalia and the United States of America. If we look at the Kilshaw case in that light, that is instructive.

We want children who need substitute families to be looked after within their country of origin, within that culture, with this country supporting systems in those countries.

Mr. Turner: First, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, there are good reasons why the United States has not subscribed to the UN convention on the rights of the child, although he may not think that they are good. Secondly, writing a rule that says that it is best that a child be looked after in their country of origin is clearly not putting the interests of the child above all other interests, any more than saying that a black child should be with black adoptive parents. He must surely apply the same standards overseas as he proposes to apply in this country.

Mr. Dawson: I am not sure about that. The moving of a child from one culture to another culture is an enormous step. While we have heard about the success of adoption—it is successful for many children—about 20 per cent. of adoptive placements break down. The thought of a child coming a long way away from their country to a completely different country, and all that falling down, presents a difficult dilemma for all of us.

We have heard some criticism of local authorities today, but it is important to emphasise that the Bill reasserts the central importance of local authorities as corporate parents of young people who are rendered vulnerable by a breakdown in their family support. The Bill places a duty on local authorities to maintain an adoption service in the same way that they are required to carry out their statutory responsibilities to all children in need under the Children Acts. That is of central importance.

As I have said, adoption is not a panacea. It is not an easy solution to the problems of all children who cannot grow up within their birth families, but it is a vital option for them and it is important that all unnecessary barriers to its use be removed. It is right and proper for the Bill to state that delay is likely to prejudice the welfare of children and to require courts to establish timetables for progress.

Far too many children spend their childhoods waiting for the opportunity of permanence that adoption could bring. I unequivocally welcome the Bill's proposals for an Adoption and Children Act register to build on excellent work by national adoption agencies—the "be my parent" initiative is one example—and to link children needing placements with prospective adopters across the country.

I am delighted to see the end of freeing orders and their replacement by placement orders. Children freed from their birth parents but left in a ghastly limbo without an adoptive placement have been denied a basic human right. It is excellent, proper and right that that should cease.

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I have been involved in many adoptions and I know that they can work well. I have also witnessed a number of adoption breakdowns. I will never forget some of the distress that those situations have caused. There is no possibility whatever of achieving the Government's admirable aim of increasing the number of children adopted from care by 40 per cent. by 2005, and of reducing the alarmingly high number of adoption breakdowns, without a major improvement in adoption support services. In particular, older children being adopted from care carrying a legacy of bad experiences, children who have been abused—often disclosing the extent of the abuse only when they feel safe enough to do so—children with disabilities and special needs and children from sibling groups, need the support of adoptive parents, who in some cases should be paid. In many cases, they should receive realistic monetary allowances. Adoptive parents must themselves have access to effective guidance, counselling and support throughout the long, changing and challenging years of childhood and, goodness me, adolescence—that is said with feeling. The bare essential is the commitment in the Bill that local authorities must make arrangements for the provision of adoption support services.

I was pleased with the response of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to a couple of questions about the level of adoption support services and the modernisation of some complaints procedures to ensure that people had a right of appeal when apparently they were not being offered the appropriate support and services. It is clear that adoption support services and the necessity of funding them properly will be one of the key debates during the passage of the Bill.

I give an unreserved welcome to the new measures proposed for the acquisition of parental responsibility by unmarried fathers and step-parents. In particular, the latter will remove something that has unnecessarily pitted the step-parent against the birth parent, who would under current arrangements lose parental responsibility, with the unfortunate child often being forced to take sides, and the time of social workers, who would be much better employed securing and supporting placements for children, being wasted.

I am also delighted with the introduction of a new concept of special guardianship. It gives parental responsibility to a carer without removing it from a birth parent, as adoption does. It will be available to unmarried couples whereas, at the moment any way, adoption is not. A very wide range of people can apply for special guardianship, and special guardians can be eligible for support services.

Special guardianship is a new proposal for permanency. The remark by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) about the importance of permanency rather than the particular nature of placement is crucial. I think that special guardianship could be one of the Bill's most important provisions, and it certainly seems to be a significant addition to the armoury of placement options. Although the proposals will benefit from further debate, I will be really interested to see how they work in practice. I think that, in some ways, the proposals will be developed further by good practice. The potential of special guardianship, especially at a time when more openness is

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being encouraged in permanent relationships and in permanent placements, is enormous. They are hugely significant and very good proposals.

It is a matter of human rights that those who have been turned down as prospective adopters should have access to an independent review and that those decisions are scrutinised. We have debated this issue before, and some of the examples given—especially by the hon. Member for Canterbury, who has tremendous knowledge, sincerity and commitment to improving adoption—were hair-raising. Although I am not laying claim to being a wonderful practitioner of adoption, my experience over some years was not that social workers operated in an enormously politically correct fashion; I think that they honestly tried, with poor resources, inadequate legislation and in very stressful circumstances, to do a decent job and their very best for children. They tried to meet children's needs as best they could.

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