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9.45 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): We have had a significant and wide-ranging debate and I am grateful to Members for their genuine interest and for their informed contributions to it. In the relatively limited time left, I hope to respond to some of

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the issues raised, but I start by congratulating the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) on his maiden speech. I am afraid that I missed his keeping his balls in the air, but I am sure that it was something worth seeing.

For many children, adoption can help to provide a stable and secure family life. The child and his needs must come first. A child's welfare is our first and last consideration. However, to help meet those needs and to provide children with new families, we must encourage suitable people to come forward as prospective adopters and to provide them with help where necessary.

There have been great changes in society and in our expectations. There are more people wanting to adopt than there are young children available for adoption. Very few babies are given up for adoption, but demand from couples to adopt babies has grown. Many couples therefore turn to other countries, and last year there were 351 applications for overseas adoption. Legislation has failed to keep pace with these changes, but the Bill represents the most radical overhaul of adoption law for 25 years. It is long overdue.

The Bill has five key aims: to make the child's needs paramount in all the decisions made by the adoption agency and the court; to provide for support for adoptive families; to help to make the process of adopting fairer; to help cut delays in adoptions; and to strengthen the rigorous safeguards to protect the child including those for intercountry adoptions.

The hon. Members for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) and for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) questioned the provision for six months in our proposals for intercountry adoptions. I should explain that the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 placed restrictions on those habitually resident in the UK bringing a child into the UK for the purposes of adoption, but it does not catch Britons who adopt the child abroad and then bring them back into this country. The Bill extends the restriction to Britons who adopt abroad and bring the child back. If they do not follow approved procedures, they will be committing an offence.

The restriction applies to habitual residents in the UK who adopt abroad within a period of six months. We chose six months because we thought that it would be long enough to deter those who want just to nip abroad and adopt quickly—we felt that three months was too short—but we did not want to catch people who worked abroad for a considerable period, adopted properly and ended up committing an offence when they returned to the UK.

There has been much debate about clause 1, which makes the child's welfare in childhood and later the paramount consideration for a court or adoption agency in making any decision relating to the adoption of that child. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey), who drew on her considerable experience in this subject, the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) raised the issue of delay. The welfare checklist in clause 1(5) states clearly:

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However, clause 1(3), vitally, will oblige courts and adoption agencies to bear it in mind at all times

That point applies across the Bill, so clause 1(3) refers to clause 1(5). Taken together, the provisions give effect to the policy set out in the national adoption standards that the best adoptive placement is one that reflects the child's birth heritage provided that the placement can be found without unnecessary or harmful delay. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear, children should not be left waiting indefinitely for a supposedly perfect family.

The hon. Members for Woodspring, for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) mentioned the importance of birth parents. The paramountcy principle applies to all decisions involving the adoption of a child, including whether to dispense with the birth parents' consent to adoption. However, we believe that the welfare check list and the need for the courts to consider those decisions provide the necessary safeguards.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport also raised the important issue of thresholds. The Bill provides that a child cannot be compulsorily placed for adoption without the Children Act 1989 threshold test of significant harm being met. That test safeguards the rights of birth families and means that there is a consistent threshold for compulsory state intervention in family life across adoption legislation and the 1989 Act. That delivers on our promise to bring those measures into line, and it is right that the focus of all decisions to do with adoption, including whether to dispense with the birth parents' consent, should be based on the child's welfare.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) emphasised the importance of the child's voice in adoption decisions. Clause 1(4)(a) explicitly demands that the court takes into consideration the ascertainable wishes of the child when making decisions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) and the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) rightly emphasised the need to recruit sufficient adoptive parents. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn), building on her experience, spoke passionately about the need to support families. The Bill places for the first time a clear duty on local social services authorities to make arrangements to provide adoption support services, including financial support. That is important. It will encourage people to come forward in the knowledge that help will be available.

Looked-after children who are adopted and their new families will have a key worker who will act as a gateway to adoption support services if they want to access them. Support will also be available for the new special guardianship proposals. That may include grandparents, who were mentioned by the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). Grandparents specifically welcomed those proposals.

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The hon. Member for Woodspring questioned the speed with which more details about adoption allowances and support would be made available. We will publish a draft framework for consultation next spring. Early work has begun, in discussion with stakeholders, on the details of adoption and financial support.

I agree that recruitment is important, which is why the Government are supporting specific local recruitment activity, developing a resource pack to support the work of local authorities in recruitment and helping to raise awareness of the children who are waiting for adoption and the adopters needed. In addition, we continue to support national adoption week.

Several hon. Members referred to resources. Overall, social services in England spent nearly £51 million on adoption and adoption allowances in 1999–2000. The Government have pledged another £66.5 million for adoption services over three years. That means a 25 per cent. increase in this financial year in the resources available for adoption and adoption support.

In response to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, I understand that the National Assembly for Wales has made extra money available, although the £66.5 million relates to England alone.

We have of course made available more money for training, and I am sure that good authorities will be using that to support their adoption work. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has a bit of a cheek raising the issue of social services funding, given that he stood for election on a platform that did not promise even to match our pledges.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) rightly emphasised the need to improve best practice and the management of adoption services. The adoption and permanence taskforce has already worked with 12 local authorities. Today we announced the involvement of another 12 authorities. The taskforce has helped local authorities to improve performance and to develop a range of good practice materials. The chairman of the taskforce is the chief inspector, so there is an important link between the work of the taskforce and our emphasis on raising standards. We also have performance indicators, inspections by the social services inspectorate and in-year monitoring. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear in a highly acclaimed speech to the social services conference two weeks ago, we will also be taking action to improve performance where necessary.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley rightly emphasised the fact that adoptive parents need to feel confident in applying. Through the independent review process, which we will be consulting on further, we will ensure that adoptive parents can have confidence in the system. Several hon. Members mentioned access to information. The fact that the hon. Members for Woodspring and for Oxford, West and Abingdon and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West took different views on that issue shows that we will return to it in the Special Standing Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) made an important point about safeguards. The Bill reinforces safeguards to protect children from harm or exploitation. I know that she has already had useful meetings about child contact with the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department,

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my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), and we will certainly consider how best to minimise the risks that she outlined.

We are determined to deliver, between March 2001 and March 2005, a 40 per cent. increase in the number of children adopted from council care. Our adoption taskforce, the adoption register and the national adoption standards launched this summer will help to achieve that, and some of the Bill's key provisions will help to sustain that commitment. Earlier this month, the latest published figures showed that this challenging goal is achievable, and one that we are right to strive for and possibly to exceed.

Last year, 12 per cent. more children were adopted from council care in England, which means that nearly every day an extra child was given the chance of a stable, loving family. The Bill represents a much needed, fundamental reform of adoption law. It is vital that we get it right. That is why we have taken a consultative approach, building on the 1996 draft Bill. That is why the Bill was referred to a Select Committee after its previous Second Reading, and why we are now proposing, by remitting the Bill to a Special Standing Committee, to give the House an additional opportunity for intensive scrutiny and to allow the key players in adoption to comment on the Bill.

We are determined to modernise and reform adoption, and to make it a faster, fairer experience for children and families. We have made good progress, and the Bill marks a further significant step towards our goal. The Bill is of lasting significance. The House has not debated and passed a major Bill on adoption for almost a generation. However, we must ensure that new laws work, and that they provide the safeguards and flexibility necessary to meet expectations and needs that have changed a great deal since the 1970s. Thousands of children and adoptive parents will have their lives changed for ever by the measures detailed in this necessarily complex Bill. For their sakes, we must get it right.

Successful adoption provides the chance of a new start and a new, loving family life for a child. The Bill will help us to provide that chance for thousands more children, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

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