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Jonathan Shaw: I fully concur with my hon. Friend's comments about the Parliamentary Secretary. Will she join me in paying tribute also to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), who campaigned for those amendments to the Bill? The response from the Parliamentary Secretary was testimony to my hon. Friend's battle and to her work to bring together all manner of stakeholders to achieve that welcome change in the law.

Jacqui Smith: Certainly I commend, as the Parliamentary Secretary did on Thursday, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) and others for their work and their approach to this important issue. I also pay tribute to other hon. Members, on the Standing Committee and in the House, who have not always made my life easy but have worked very hard to ensure that the concerns of stakeholders are expressed and reflected in the Bill.

The free votes on amendments concerning unmarried couples showed that there was significant support for a change to current legislation. The amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), and supported by the House, help us in our aim to give more vulnerable children the chance of the permanent, secure and stable family life that adoption can provide. As I promised on Thursday, in the other place we will table the necessary amendments to the rest of the Bill to deal with any legal and technical implications of that change. The Bill now moves on for consideration by the other place. I am confident that it goes there in an improved state thanks to the work that we have done here.

The Government are determined to press on with our programme to restructure and improve adoption services. Unlike the 1976 Act, it will certainly not be more than 10 years before this Bill is implemented. Once it has gone through its remaining stages and received Royal Assent, we intend to bring its main provisions into force in 2004. However, as we have discussed today, it is important that some measures are introduced before that. The new framework for adoption support services and financial support will be brought into effect in 2003, as will the independent review mechanism in respect of adopter assessment.

The restrictions on bringing children into the UK should be brought into force as soon as possible, and they will be implemented in advance of the rest of the Bill. We therefore intend to bring these provisions into force in advance of the rest of the Bill. As part of the package of safeguards to be put in place for children, we intend in 2002 to amend section 58 of the 1976 Act to make it clear that the restrictions on advertising of adoption services cover electronic advertising.

Ensuring that the Bill is passed is, of course, only the first step. Once it receives Royal Assent, the real work to make changes on the ground will begin. We intend to

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continue the consultative approach that we have taken throughout progress on the Bill. We will hold full public consultations on each set of regulations and consult widely on the detail of the rules to be made under the Bill.

In conclusion, I am pleased with how far we have come with the Bill, whose aim is to ensure that all children have the best start in life. I hope that the Bill that we now have as a result of our efforts provides the very best start that we can give and makes our contribution to that crucial change.

8 pm

Tim Loughton: At last we have reached the relative calm of Third Reading. I am glad that we have sufficient time for all hon. Members who served on the Committee to contribute. I urge the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) to feel free to intervene on me; he will get a positive response.

It seems only yesterday that we started the Committee stage. The ability to hear witnesses was a good innovation, as the Minister said. More than 30 expert witnesses gave us their views, but the problem was that we did not have much time between listening to them and starting the Standing Committee procedure proper. There were 24 Standing Committee sittings, ending on 17 January, and there was an abortive start to the Report stage—all two hours of it—on 20 March.

Today and last Thursday we have seen a mêlée of 319 amendments—320 if one includes amendment No. 322, which crept back in for a repeat performance—and 16 new clauses. Many of those proposals have had to be agreed to when a guillotine has come down, as you will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker; you and your colleagues in the Chair have often sounded like up-market bingo callers as the knife comes down. All that came on top of the 270 amendments and 17 new clauses that were debated—again, the time was curtailed—in Committee.

We have covered everything from adoption support services to the implications of the sperm of Members of the House of Lords for adoption law, and from CAFCASS to terminology in respect of British colonies, or rather British overseas territories, as they should now be called. We have certainly had an extensive debate before waving this Bill off to the upper House, although I suspect that a welcoming party may greet its return to this House.

We have had an extensive debate, but I fear that it has been curtailed on too many occasions. I do not think that there was any need for a programme motion on the Bill, which had cross-party support. It was radical in terms of updating the 1976 legislation with the introduction of some very positive measures, many of which we agreed with. In Committee, the programme motion meant that 43 clauses were completely untouched by debate, seven clauses were unfinished and two whole schedules were not debated—measures that amounted to a third of the Bill.

As I said, much of that provision has not been debated on Report, either, which is a shame. On Thursday we failed to finish discussing 62 amendments on the operation of placement orders, eight amendments and new clause 5 on arrangements for adoption at birth, 11 amendments on contact, 17 amendments on special guardianship orders, 25 amendments and three new clauses on unmarried couples, on which many other hon. Members wanted to speak, and so on. Today we have

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made slightly better progress, largely because the issues were less contentious. Even so, we have had to get through 63 amendments and four new clauses.

So much has been left unscrutinised. I am sure that interested parties outside the House will wonder why everything had to be crammed into Committee in two months only for us then to twiddle our thumbs for the subsequent four months and then cram 319 amendments and 17 new clauses into only two days and two hours—but alas, that is the way Parliament works.

I wish the Bill well in the upper House. It will continue to enjoy the Opposition's support, as it has done throughout its passage. As the Minister said, we have achieved an awful lot. The number of Government amendments tabled on Report shows that the Government have been willing to make many changes. To give them credit, they have responded to many of the concerns that we expressed in Committee, including those relating to the three-year limitation, which we discussed earlier, and to CAFCASS support services, and also the latest spectacular hit by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) in relation to the addresses of adopted children.

All those contributions were positive and I am grateful to the Minister for graciously attributing some of those proposals—if not all of them—to us. We had some very good debate and good Back-Bench engagement on both sides of the House, which is welcome. At least, that has been the case when Labour Members have not been trying to outdo each other on the subject of how many years they served as social workers before coming to this place; we have been up against exceedingly competitive Government Back Benchers. None the less, it has all been done in good humour, greatly enhanced by the Minister's flow charts—although I regret to say that those have failed to make a reappearance on Report.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, the fragrant hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton)—alas, she is not present for the finish of our proceedings—made very welcome offers to write to us, as she has done at length on many occasions in response to matters raised in Committee. The recent letters that we have received from both Ministers on speeding up adoption support services and on independent review mechanisms show that the Government have listened, which is to be welcomed.

We have also enjoyed the great expertise of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), even if he has yet to honour his offer of a bottle of wine in the contest for the best pronunciation of his constituency. Of course, this is his last opportunity not to welsh on that deal.

I also pay tribute to my colleagues. My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), speaking in his debut performance in Committee, made serious contributions made from a legal perspective, drawing on his background. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset has great experience in this field and scored more hits than other Opposition Members put together in getting his amendments accepted. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) brought his own characteristic and idiosyncratic—but most entertaining and informed—contribution to the debate. I pay particular tribute to the speaking Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier),

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who is more of an expert on adoption than most of us. We have all greatly benefited from his expertise and experience, and from his knowledge of many cases, reflecting just about every clause, all of which seem to have happened in his constituency; it all happens in Canterbury.

It is also fitting that we should pay tribute to the enormous amount of work done by the Minister's officials at the Department of Health, and to Tom Goldsmith, the Clerk to this Bill, who has given enormous help on the technical and tricky matters with which it deals. Of course, it would also be churlish of me not to say that the Liberals have also made the occasional appearance.

I have learned a lot about the subject of the Bill during the past few months. All of us have had experiences of constituents affected by adoption, and many of us have been greatly touched by them. We are also grateful for all the input from pressure groups, including the Adoption Forum and Liv O'Hanlon, the National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and Parents and Pam Hodgkins, who campaigned so hard on the retrospective nature of the legislation, the Children's Society and Julia Feast, the women's refuges, and the Catholic Children's Society and Jim Richards. All of them are mentioned in Hansard.

We have achieved an awful lot in the Bill, of which all of us can be proud. That is why we are very happy to support it, even if it came slightly late in the day. We should also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), who promoted her own private Member's Bill on adoption and kick-started the Government process that resulted at last in the introduction of the Bill before us.

The Bill is much more than parts of part 1 chapter 3, especially clause 47, and the question of who should be allowed to adopt. Most of us, on whatever side of argument, would agree that it is a great pity that the media have focused only on that aspect of the Bill, which has dominated all the headlines as if it were the only issue at stake in a Bill with 137 clauses and six schedules. I am sure that that subject will be revisited in another place, but I hope that the media and the world outside will take a more balanced view of the Bill and everything else that it contains.

There is wide agreement that clause 1(2) lies at the heart of the Bill. It states:

We have all have kept that very much at heart while we have been dealing with all the clauses and amendments, and quite rightly so. Principal to our consideration was the axiom that a father and a mother are best for a child, even if we have a debate about their marital status, and even if that situation is not always achievable.

The overriding consideration must be how we can help the 58,000 children who are looked after in care at the moment. That figure has risen alarmingly recently—by some 17 per cent. over the last few years. We must also consider the increasing complexity and complications involved, and the severe learning and behavioural requirements of some of those children. Only about 200 of the children adopted are babies.

There is currently an enormous amount of delay and bureaucracy in the system, and there are many shortcomings in the support available for damaged

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children, for vulnerable families and their relatives, and for the willing adopters, of whom we need many more. We need to speed up the process, and to increase the number of volunteers from 3,000 to at least 5,000, perhaps 8,000, in the next few years.

We also need to ensure that adoptions work first time, and are good quality placements that will give the best prospects for a second chance to those damaged children. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford is right: this is not just about targets. It is about quality placements for individuals, every one of whom has a real life experience and a real life problem that needs to be addressed. They are not just numbers.

The Minister was right to say that the real work of the Bill will begin when it becomes law. This is not just a question of banning something or making something illegal, as are many other pieces of legislation. This is about starting an enormous process to set up new structures, and to ensure that those structures work so that the Bill can achieve what we all agree that it should achieve.

We have made great progress in certain areas. On clause 1, we may have arguments about welfare considerations being put above political correctness, but we all agree that we need to avoid delay. The adoption support services are an enormous benefit of the Bill, because the key to a good adoption is to provide support, understanding and information before, during and after adoption, continuing until the child reaches adulthood. That involves dealing with education, behavioural problems, housing and general health.

The principle of the Bill is absolutely right, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, because the principle will be worthless unless local authorities—which will have responsibility for many of these services—are properly resourced. I argue with the Government over the resourcing levels of social services, because there is still an enormous £1 billion gap in social services departments' funding throughout the country, and the biggest increase in that shortfall has been in children's services. That is where social services are the most stretched, and where there is the biggest shortage of skilled professional children's workers.

We have expressed the fear before that local authorities often have to retrench to their statutory responsibilities simply because they do not have the resources and the manpower to go round. That is why we were so keen that so many of the provisions in the Bill should be a requirement rather than an optional extra that local authorities could opt out of even if they did not want to, because many of them are really stretched.

We have achieved a lot with regard to greater clarity in the legal process relating to placement and adoption orders. It is essential that all parties know what to expect of the system, what their rights and responsibilities are, and how they can reverse the process if they have a change of heart. The better independent review panel is also to be welcomed, although we still have concerns about how it will operate.

We shall not go back over the discussions about disclosure of information, but it was enormously welcome when, after the Christmas break, the Government had a change of heart on this issue. We had all found it a

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complete mystery that they had sought to retreat from the provision in the Adoption Act 1976 concerning providing information to birth parents and to children trying to find their birth parents. We still think that these measures should be retrospective, particularly to give an older generation of women what will probably be their last chance to find the children whom they gave away for adoption, often under enormous pressure, back in the 1940s and 1950s in an adoption climate very different from the one that exists now. I know that the Minister addressed the amendments that we, and the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), tabled the other day, but this is still a serious problem.

We have improved the provisions for disclosure of information on many other fronts, particularly the disclosure of information before an adoption is effected. The Government responded to our concerns, not so much in the Bill but with regard to regulations, which will provide that as much information as possible should be made available to prospective adoptive parents before they make the decision to adopt, so that the right decision can be made.

There have been improvements to the provisions for the adopted children register, and the adoption contact register has been put on a statutory footing. There are still problems with inter-country adoptions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury mentioned earlier. That is a matter that will go on exercising our minds. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) and to the fact that there is a response in the Bill to issues of domestic violence, which we all wanted. There is still a long way to go on that, but this is a useful first step.

It is right to improve the provisions on offences relating to people running adoption services without being properly authorised, or bringing children into the country without the right to do so, in very unpleasant circumstances. The innovation of special guardianship orders is another positive aspect of the Bill which we did not get to debate at length, but which, by and large, has widespread support.

In conclusion, we have achieved an awful lot. It is increasingly important that this legislation should go through swiftly and be put into effect properly and practically. A short time ago, the horrific case of Victoria Climbié, and the case of John Smith in my constituency a couple of years ago, brought home to us just how many gaps there are in child support services, and how there are still too many vulnerable people out there whom the system has failed. Such horrendous failures must not be allowed to happen again.

There is much good in the Bill. It is good that the Government have listened in many cases. It would be even better if they listened a little more to the questions that will arise in the upper House. I shall finish, as the Minister did, by saying that the Bill is intended to reach, and to a great degree succeeds in reaching, the target of giving all children, particularly those who have had a damaged beginning in difficult circumstances, the best start in life.

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