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8.31 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I begin by placing one or two facts on the record. More than 58,000 children are in care and the number is rising. Each year, only about 2,900 are adopted. Yet children who grow up in care are four times more likely to be unemployed, 60 times more likely to be homeless, and make up one in four of the adult prison population. It is obvious to everyone across the political spectrum that something needs to be done. About 92 per cent. of adoptions are successful, although that statistic decreases for children who are adopted when they are a little older.

We often hear of postcode prescribing and the need for the famous level playing field. That is a consideration in this matter as much as anything else. The quality of

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adoption services depends on where people live. Every commentator would agree that there is a dire and urgent need for conformity across the board, regardless of where a person resides. There is also a long-overdue need to bring services up to speed and to improve standards throughout.

I am not making an oblique criticism of local government, social workers or anyone involved in the sector, but some local authorities operate a Cinderella service. There are usually two main reasons for that. First, some people who hold sway in social services departments have almost a culture of objecting to adoption. Secondly, the resource implications make it difficult, if not impossible, for local authorities because of the huge financial pressures and the need to prioritise. Time and time again, the service is the loser.

When I served on the Standing Committee that considered the Family Law Bill in 1996, there were many and varied debates on the resource implications. Everyone who read the Bill readily appreciated that those implications were substantial. The Government did not heed our concerns and the upshot is that several aspects of the Family Law Act 1996 have yet to be implemented. That is a great shame; the legislation is fairly good, but the resources did not follow the words. Several hon. Members have made the telling and important point that this Bill has substantial resource implications. The Secretary of State said that £66 million would be provided. Is that new money? If so, how much will go, for example, to Wales? What will be the average amount that local authorities will receive?

The message is clear—we cannot duck the issue by not providing proper resources. Clause 3 says:

of people affected by the process. Unfortunately, for various reasons, many local authorities are not providing a sufficiently good service. If they were, there would be no need for the Bill. Many do not have adequate resources and, for the reasons that I outlined a moment ago, they do not prioritise as they should. In Wales, unitary authorities are probably too small to deliver specialist services, and they have not co-operated as it was hoped that they would.

I welcome the broad drift of the Bill. The paramountcy given to children's welfare in clause 1 is very important because it brings the Bill into line with the Children Act 1989. The Bill upholds important principles, and the reference to ethnicity and language has resonance in Wales. Welsh is the dominant language in much of the country, and I hope that the Bill will assist in placing Welsh-speaking children with Welsh-speaking adoptive parents. The same consideration should be given to the important factors of ethnicity and religion. If it is possible to achieve a match, that is all well and good, and if it is impossible, that is fine too, as long as an effort has been made.

I declare an interest as a so-called parliamentary ambassador to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I believed that one day, when I left politics, I would like to be the Welsh ambassador to the Bahamas, but at least I have already reached ambassador status, albeit in a rather dank climate. The reform is overdue, and the NSPCC gives a generally warm welcome to the Bill. It says that the speeding-up of the process should not be at the risk of failing fully to assess and meet

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the needs of children. It also notes that permanency for children can be achieved in several ways, and long-term foster care may be an appropriate alternative to adoption. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn), speaking from experience, made that point.

The Adoption Forum is concerned about the lack of an independent appeals or review procedure for prospective adoptive parents who are turned down. The provisions in clause 12 do not provide that independence. It also states that the current complaints procedure is insufficient, pointing out that it is difficult to complain directly to the body about which one is making a complaint.

British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering also welcome the Bill. It points out that the inter-agency fee, which other hon. Members have mentioned, is a significant problem in Wales. BAAF has set up a consortium of nine local authorities, which help each other on a no-fee basis. As hon. Members have pointed out, the inter-agency fee can be substantial—anywhere between £12,000 and £16,000.

I welcome the national adoption register. I have to say that since the implementation of the Children Act 1989, there have been immense improvements in the court system. Courts have speeded up legal procedures involving children and proceedings are properly timetabled. I speak as a barrister who practises in child law. The checklist approach in the Bill will be useful because time is of the essence when young children are involved. We have a good body of magistrates, district judges and county court judges who are expert in child law, and we must educate those people and give them in-depth training when the Bill is implemented.

The United Nations convention on the rights of the child emphasises the right of a child to be consulted. The Bill's intention is to increase adoption, and I hope that it will also increase consultation with children, particularly older children. It is crucial that older children have their say in what happens to them. That was emphasised in the response of the organisation Children in Wales to the draft Bill. We must also emphasise that targets are but targets. They must be set with great care and resource implications must be taken into account.

I had a list of issues that were of concern to the all-party adoption group, but the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) dealt eloquently with all of them in his speech. However, I should like the Minister who winds up to repeat the point about the £66 million.

I conclude by adding my voice to those of many hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber who have said that the Bill is welcome. It needs to be improved in Committee and I am sure that it will be. The debate has been of a fairly high standard, and I am sure that during the Bill's passage we shall be able to put politics aside and work as best we can together, keeping the welfare and needs of children nearest to our hearts. In that way, we shall be able to improve the Bill and make it the landmark legislation that it should be.

8.41 pm

Margaret Moran (Luton, South): The main focus of the Bill is the reform of the adoption process, but it would also amend the Children Act 1989 in respect of child contact. The focus of my speech will be the latter issue, to which speakers in previous debates on the Bill paid little attention.

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Clauses 88 to 91 provide for restrictions on arranging and advertising children for adoption other than through adoption agencies, and prohibit certain payments. A self- confessed techie, I have watched with alarm the growth of e-adoption—a net nightmare with pictures of babies for sale over the net, and of course a black baby is cheaper than a white one. We must go further to stamp out such practices, using means similar to the internet taskforce report on child protection to investigate further, but for now those clauses are most welcome.

The Bill provides for amendments to the Children Act 1989. Clause 106 in part II amends the Act to increase the parental responsibility of unmarried fathers. I welcome the clause—of course it is right that fathers, wed or otherwise, take responsibility for and have contact with their children. That must, in most cases, be in the best interests of the child.

In all our consideration of the Bill and as we have agreed tonight, the protection of the child must be paramount. That is what the Bill is all about, but I believe that we are in danger of passing into legislation a measure that might inadvertently put children at greater risk. The 1989 Act was designed to make the interests of the child paramount, but many believe that it is failing, and failing dangerously. Most professionals agree that the Act is in need of amendment.

As we seek to increase child contact with unmarried parents, we must examine how child contact arrangements are currently working. In amending the 1989 Act, we must ensure that we establish full safeguards for the protection of the child. I fear that the Bill does not do that and I would like it to be amended accordingly.

To see why amendment is needed, let us examine the current position in respect of child contact orders made for couples who were married. The Amica—Aid for Mothers Involved in Contact Action—study in 1999 of 130 parents subjected to domestic violence found that 76 per cent. of their children were said to have been abused as a result of contact orders issued by the courts.

A recent survey carried out by the Women's Aid Federation found that courts are failing to protect children, who are being put in danger as a result of contact orders being granted to abusive parents. The survey also found that despite new guidance being issued to the courts, the situation has not improved. We hope that the Government now accept that there is an urgent need to amend the Children Act to ensure the protection of children involved in private family law proceedings.

Why is it essential that we take account of domestic violence? It does not occur in only a small minority of cases—the national snapshot of domestic violence showed that every minute, police in the UK receive a call for help because of domestic violence. We know that such violence features even more prominently in contested contact cases. According to Home Office statistics, every year an average of two women a week are killed by their partners or ex-partners in England and Wales. In recent years, several children have died as a result of contact arrangements.

I shall refer to a few of the cases that have been reported in the media or are known to refuge projects. Daniella Hurst, who was aged two, was killed by her father during a contact visit in Lincolnshire on 10 October 2000. Saba and Zeeshan Zaidi, who were aged seven and six, were killed by their father when he came to Bracknell

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to collect them for a contact visit on 18 March 2000. Their mother was also stabbed to death. Christopher and Oliver Fairless, who were aged six and nine, were hanged by their father on 17 April 2000 in Scotter, north Lincolnshire. He had been granted unsupervised contact even though he was facing charges of rape and of assaulting his wife. Daniel and Jordan Philpott, aged seven and three, were killed by their father during a contact visit in August 1999 near Pontypridd. Unsupervised contact had been granted to Julian Philpott even though he was due to appear in Cardiff Crown court on charges of threatening to kill his ex-partner and causing her actual bodily harm.

Daniel Brinnan, aged two, was found dead with his father after a contact visit on 13 March 1999 in Lincolnshire. Imtiaz Begum was stabbed to death in Birmingham on 20 January 1996 when she was collecting her son after a contact visit. He was found strangled in her husband's car, and her three daughters, who had been living with her husband, were found dead in their beds with their throats cut. Nina and Jack Sandhu, aged four and three, were killed by their father during a contact visit in February 1994 in Derbyshire. Their mother, Sarah Heatley, had been persuaded by court officials to agree to contact informally, although she was very worried about her husband's mental health. We need action now if we are to prevent further such tragedies.

In taking up the issue, the all-party group on domestic violence, which I chair, has been guided by the voices of survivors. In the first ever parliamentary online consultation between survivors and MPs, "Womenspeak", we received powerful proof of the urgent need for change. I understand that that e-consultation has made this Parliament a worldwide leader in e-democracy and is being referred to in conferences around the globe. That is well and good, but the point of the consultation is the need to listen to the real concerns of survivors who made a desperate plea for help in protecting their children.

In our online consultation, more than 90 per cent. of contributions that referred to child contact said that either the child or mother suffered from domestic violence. I ask hon. Members to listen to their experiences. One contributor, Sharon, said:

Most women felt that the courts did not take into account the domestic violence or the experiences of the child and mother. The presumption in practice that child contact is always in the best interests of the child needs to be reviewed where there is domestic violence. I ask hon. Members to listen again:

That message was from Vanessa.

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The recent review by the Advisory Board on Family Law Children Act sub-committee on the death of Georgina McCarthy tells us that the system is not working. Child contact orders were made repeatedly by the courts, which ignored warnings from social workers and others that her husband posed a serious risk to her and her children. Sadly, they were right.

It has been argued that court practice has improved since the Court of Appeal judgment last year and that changes to the Children Act 1989 are consequently unnecessary. However, Women's Aid's most recent report makes it clear that child contact orders continue to be granted even when there is evidence of violence or abuse to the child.

The Bill could make it easier for abusive, unmarried fathers to obtain contact with their children. Women's Aid and the all-party group have repeatedly requested that the two issues should be tackled simultaneously to ensure proper protection for the child. The Children Act 1989 has been distorted by case law to the extent that it can no longer protect children.

Some judges agree. In Re H and Others, the House of Lords ruled that the more serious the allegation, the higher the standard of proof that the court should require. Two of the five Law Lords involved in the case dissented. Lord Browne-Wilkinson stated:

Lord Browne-Wilkinson clearly considers that the ruling has made the Children Act 1989 unworkable.

Women's Aid can cite cases of enforced contact when there was good reason to believe that a child had been abused. The organisation is also aware of several cases in which direct contact has been ordered despite strong suggestions of child sexual abuse:

Providing the sort of protection that we are discussing for our children would not be new. New Zealand has legislation on contact, residence and domestic violence. It establishes a rebuttal presumption that residence and unsupervised contact will not be granted to someone who has been violent in the family unless the court is satisfied that the child will be safe. It also enforces a mandatory risk assessment checklist, which forms the basis of all welfare reports.

The Bill could make such a provision, alongside the amendment to grant parental responsibility to unmarried fathers who register the birth of the child. Without it, there is a fear that the measure will make it harder for refuge projects to protect children of unmarried, abusive parents.

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Why should English children have less protection from violent parents in child contact situations than their counterparts in Northern Ireland? There, courts are required to consider the risk of harm. The Family Homes and Domestic Violence Order 1988 is our equivalent of the Family Law (Northern Ireland) Act 2001, which provides that when a violent person who has abused the child's primary carer applies for contact with the child, the court has to consider the risk of harm to the child, including harm arising from seeing further abuse of the primary carer, in deciding what, if any, order to make. That provision was introduced in Northern Ireland as a result of consultation to fill a perceived loophole in protecting children. It is patently unfair and dangerous not to afford similar protection to our children in England.

Several children's charities, including the NSPCC, Barnados and National Children's Homes, support our call for an amendment to the Children Act 1989. We shall have few, if any, opportunities in the Session to amend it to ensure that no more children suffer the trauma, violence or abuse associated with domestic violence. How many more names of murdered children do we need before we provide the protection that other children have?

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