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8.54 pm

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): It is humbling to speak in such a debate when so many hon. Members have real expertise. I am thinking particularly of the hon. Members for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn), for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) and others who have a lot of professional experience. I have none whatever.

I was drawn into the subject, like many of us I suspect, mainly through personal experience of casework. One case was a blatant example of age discrimination by a local authority, which was eventually and painfully resolved by the intervention of the then Minister, the Financial Secretary. Another example involved frustrated inter-racial adoption, which eventually became a running column in The Mail on Sunday. The fact that the process seemed unable to handle such bitter, difficult cases led me into the subject.

The hon. Members for Erewash (Liz Blackman) and for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), in an excellent maiden speech, referred to the status and importance of adopters—if there are no adopters, there can be no adoption. It is naturally important that we build in all kinds of safeguards to protect children and essential that the Bill builds in the paramountcy of the child, but without the adopters, the measure will not work. Does it make sense to include a provision that recognises encouraging adoption and valuing adopters as fundamental strategic objectives?

I am struck by the fact that the headline for the only press publicity given to the debate is, "Couples who flout adoption laws face a year in prison". The message is that there is a community of potential adopters out there, all of whom are slightly dodgy and some of whom are looking for ways to break the law. That sends the wrong message to a community that we should do everything to value and encourage. We could achieve that through legislative drafting.

I welcome the appeals process, although as the hon. Members for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) and for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and others pointed out, the details are hazy.

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I felt sufficiently strongly about the inadequacy of the appeals system to initiate an Adjournment debate on 25 October 2000 and I like to think that some responses reflect that discussion.

It is important to consider why an appeals process is necessary. Most adoptions—about 94 per cent.—go through without any problem. About 6 per cent. are disputed or fail. In many ways, that figure represents a considerable understatement, because a lot of adopters do not want to take issue with their local authority for fear of prejudicing their future position. I suspect that the area of unhappiness is considerably larger.

Why does the existing process not work? Several points have been made, but there are others. One is that it is difficult for someone with a failed placement or who has been rejected from an adoption list to take issue with the local social services authority, because insurance companies put strong pressure on local authorities never to admit liability. It has become standard practice for local authorities never to admit a mistake, as they would prejudice their insurance cover, so it is impossible to achieve a sensible dialogue between frustrated adopters and a social services department that has rejected them.

Such people could proceed to the ombudsman, but the ombudsman will deal only with maladministration, not unfair judgments. They could go to judicial review, but that is hard to secure, expensive and time consuming. That is why an appeals process is necessary, and I must make a few points about it.

Charges, were they to be introduced, could discourage a lot of legitimate appeals. They could also prejudice and distort the outcome. We need to be careful about the way in which charges are imposed, particularly as they might be onerous due to the cost of setting up a tribunal system.

Furthermore, the appeals must be wide ranging and not just cover a dispute between a potential adopter and a local council. Many others—third parties, for example—might want to enter an appeals process. A recent abuse case highlighted the fact that a doctor was unable to bring to bear evidence based on personal observations of a prospective adoption case. Whistleblowers should have access to the appeals system, which needs to be widely couched.

I was a little worried by the tone of the Government's comments on intercountry adoption. The only hon. Member who addressed this issue coherently was the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre, who tried to explain why potential intercountry adopters encounter such a wall of resistance. This country is extremely unfriendly towards intercountry adoption. In France, 3,600 such adoptions are arranged each year, whereas there are only 300 in this country. People trying to go through the intercountry adoption process are treated with great suspicion by their local authority, and by Government Departments, if they get that far.

There are often good reasons why people want to engage in intercountry adoption. Many people travel widely, work overseas or are familiar with an overseas environment, and it is perfectly natural to want to adopt a child from that country. There are, increasingly, cases of mixed marriages. Couples of different nationality, where one spouse comes from an overseas country, may find it culturally easier to adopt from that environment. It is entirely proper that they should be allowed to adopt, provided that the process is properly supervised, that those countries have a proper

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system of vetting, and that we observe international conventions, such as the Hague convention or the United Nations conventions. Intercountry adoption should be encouraged. Such couples are providing a child with a home, and the fact that it is not a British child is not the last word on the subject.

The Government must use a more positive tone on intercountry adoptions than they have in the past. It has acquired a negative connotation, which is completely inappropriate. By including in the legislation extraterritorial provisions that require other countries to satisfy British as well as international standards, the Government are building in an unnecessary barrier.

Finally, I want to take up a point that was usefully made by the hon. Member for Canterbury, which related to joined-up government. The process of taking an adoption to its conclusion involves the crucial court stage in which the ad litems are key people. As he observed, CAFCASS and the Lord Chancellor's Department have got themselves into an appalling tangle over the terms of contracts of those 2,000 people, such that half of them have resigned from their contracts. He kindly placed the responsibility on that parastatal organisation, but I think that the problem lies with the Government, especially the Treasury, which is driving this policy. It is an Inland Revenue-driven policy to try to force this small group of people off self-employment and on to full-time contract terms for tax reasons. It is totally inappropriate to the work that they do, and the end product has been that a small but crucial profession has, in effect, been destroyed. The judicial review may overturn that, but extraordinary administrative incompetence could undermine the continuity of the Government's policies on children, so I hope that they will reconsider the matter.

Despite those qualifications, I agree that this is a good Bill. It is long overdue, very welcome and will enjoy support from all parties.

9.3 pm

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): I welcome the Bill, because we are all confident that it will become law, unlike White Papers and draft Bills from the previous Labour Government and the Conservative Government before them. Bills always came at the end of a Parliament, and the fact that this Bill has been introduced at the beginning of the Parliament gives us confidence. As no general election is pending, we will be able better to consider some of the more difficult issues, especially the question of whether unmarried and same sex couples should qualify for adoption. The point that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) made was well articulated. If an election had been pending, we would have all vied for the chance to show which party was the most family friendly. As we are at the beginning of the Parliament, we shall be able to give the issue better consideration.

Parliament has waited a long time to change the law on adoption—since 1976. More importantly, the children have waited for far too long. We have heard comparisons between adoption and remaining in the care system. We are told that 75 per cent. of children in care leave without any educational qualifications. Children in the care system are apparently represented disproportionately in prisons, and are disproportionately found to be living rough.

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We should, however, compare the adoption legislation with what was the law earlier. Children who had been abused in all manner of ways were expected to stand on their own two feet after leaving care at 16. The position of those in adoptive placements is bound to show in a better light.

I am proud that we have changed the law. The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 raised the leaving age to 21, and to up to 24 for young people in education or training. I believe that in years to come we shall be able to compare today's figures with figures demonstrating a far more favourable system for children in care.

Practitioners in the field welcome the Bill. Before proceedings began in the Special Select Committee of which I was privileged to be a member, I sat down to discuss it with social services staff from Medway council, one of the local authorities in my area. They reacted warmly to the Bill. Not just children, not just Parliament, but practitioners have been waiting for legislative changes.

We criticise practitioners, but to some extent it was Parliament that allowed political correctness to manifest itself during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it did nothing to build a better framework in which more children could enjoy the love and happiness provided by adoptive families to which we have all referred today. I do not think it right to point the finger at any one group involved in the process of adoption.

Let me record my thanks to the Medway council staff, who were very informative about the Bill. Medway was judged to be among the top 10 authorities in terms of social services, and fostering and adoption are two of the key indicators. We should give praise where it is due.

I welcome proposals to speed up the court process, and to establish a timetable. When I was a social worker, delay was built in—not necessarily by the panel or the process in which my colleagues and I were involved, but by our having to wait time and again for yet another expert's report. As has been said, the reports for which we waited generally reached a conclusion similar to that reached by the social workers. There would then be a residential study, followed by a further study.

I remember a case involving the removal of a child at birth. In some ways that is the most painful experience for a social worker, especially a social worker who is also a parent. We cannot help empathising with the mother, while perhaps also feeling that it is for the best, given what has happened to other children. The case took 18 months to resolve, and no one can tell me that that has not had a profound effect on the child. Fortunately the child went to fantastic adoptive parents, but the process took 18 months. We all know from remembering our children at the same age that they have been shaped enormously by their families and their experiences; being taken away from foster carers is bound to have a profound effect.

I welcome the timetabling, but, as one of my hon. Friends said earlier, we should monitor it. It is all very well to set a timetable, but what is most important is what actually happens.

On Second Reading of the Bill debated in the last Session—I have reread the report of it—many passionate speeches were made, similar to those that we have heard today. Frequent reference was made to the 58,000 children and young people whom councils had to look after. We

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should not assume, however, that a child will not have a fulfilling life just because he or she remains in care. Sometimes we almost say that children in care are condemned, and that is not true: many children in care flourish. Of course, it is preferable for them to have a loving family relationship in permanency, ideally in an adoptive relationship, but we have other measures, especially the special guardianship order, which I welcome. Adoption is not a panacea. There are alternatives in which children flourish.

Moving children to an adoptive family can often appear the easiest solution, but research shows that, where children can remain within or be returned to their natural family, and an assessment can be made that that is good enough—it may not be good enough for us as individuals—that is the best for them further on in their lives.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) referred to privately fostered children. The Victoria Climbie inquiry is taking place at the moment. The tragic circumstances in which that child died and the failure of all agencies to protect her have been well recorded, but there was a failure not just of the agencies but, again, of the legislative framework. We do not know how many children are privately fostered. Report after report, including those by Lord Laming and by Sir William Utting, have said that we must have far more rigorous inspection and registration of that particular group. We require child minders and day centres to register with the National Care Standards Commission, yet we do not have the same rigorous inspection regime for children who are looked after full-time, often when their parents are abroad.

I am sure that Lord Laming will make the following recommendation. He mentioned it in the other place during the passage of the Care Standards Bill, as did other noble Lords. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre did so during the Committee stage of that Bill. We called on the Government to look more closely at the way in which we monitor privately fostered children. There is a golden opportunity to look very carefully at the legislation and to ensure that those vulnerable children living on their own away from home are properly protected.

I applaud the Bill. I was involved in the process for many years prior to coming to the House and the delays were appalling. The effects on children were equally appalling. All of us should recognise that legislation should have been in place, but this Bill has been welcomed by practitioners, by all those operating in the field, and not least by the children who need permanency.

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