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4 Nov 2002 : Column 58—continued

Dr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman makes the point that I have just made—there will be people who have differences of opinion. Had the Labour party put a Whip on, and 63 per cent. or nearly two thirds—the figures that he gave are right—turned out in favour of the amendment, we would not be having this debate now, he would not have had to cobble together the defence of his position that we heard earlier, and the measure would be put on the statute book more quickly. The measure needs to get on the statute book—in the form, I hope, amended by this group of amendments—for the best interests of children and in the interests of non-discrimination. I hope that the Government will refute the suggestion in The Independent today that senior Whitehall sources argue that if the other place does not back down, the Government will drop the measure. Those kinds of hints, which allegedly come from the Government, send the wrong signals to opponents of the measure in another place. I hope that the Minister will be very clear in her reply that the

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Government are committed to ensuring that the will of this House can override that of the other place, in this Session, before we prorogue.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he is prepared, between now and Prorogation, to see the whole of the Bill lost because the other place may not accept the amendment? We can play ping-pong for several days, but if the Lords do not accept the proposal, the whole Bill may be lost.

Dr. Harris: Interventions such as that make me worry more than rumours in the newspapers about the Government's intent. I hope that the Bill will be passed as amended, and the Government should make it absolutely clear that, if it is rejected in another place, they will send it back again—even that would be something. This debate is about the rights of the child, and opportunities such as this Bill come along only once every 25 years, so the Government ought to be clear about their willingness, at the appropriate time, to use other parliamentary procedures to ensure that the Bill becomes law, in its correct form and as soon as possible.

I return to the main proposition: the Bill needs amendments (a) to (uu). I hope that there is a maximum turnout from each party for the votes, and I pay particular tribute to Conservative Members who are prepared to defy the Whip to make it clear that the rights of the child and the right not to be discriminated against come first.

Ms Munn: It is a shocking fact that a boy over the age of five is unlikely to be adopted even though he is waiting for an adoptive home. Let us think about that for a moment. Let us think about children whom we know, perhaps a son aged seven or eight, a nephew, a next-door neighbour or a child who lives in our street. I repeat: a boy over the age of five is unlikely to find someone to offer him a permanent home.

We have heard it said many times, rightly, that this debate is not about anybody's right to adopt. Nobody has the right to adopt, and that is as it should be. I believe strongly, however, that every adult who is able to offer a loving home to a child should be allowed to do so, regardless of their situation. If they have been assessed as suitable to adopt, they should have the right to apply. If they are deemed to be suitable for a particular child, that child could have a loving home that they might not otherwise find.

As a society that values children, we should ensure that every child has the right to a loving, permanent home. We do not achieve that at the moment. Adoption is fundamentally about children; it is not about the way in which we, as adults, live our lives. It is not about our homes, our party positions or the way in which our party wants us to vote. Those are not the issues today.

I am holding in my hand XBe My Parent" magazine, which has already been referred to. It is a monthly magazine produced by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering. I could have looked at it every month when I worked in social services, but I have to tell

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the House that I did not. I will not get into the bidding war that we had in Committee about who has been in social services the longest—

Mr. Dawson: Because you won.

Ms Munn: Yes, I won. One would think that people who had spent so many years in social services dealing with these issues would have become immune to them. However, I could not look, every month, at the faces of the children in this magazine because every child smiling out from a photo is included not because someone wants to adopt them but because there is already a shortage of adopters in their local authority. Most children in most local authorities are matched with parents who have gone through the process in that area or who have made an arrangement with another local authority. Children appear in this magazine only when they are hard to place.

Hon. Members should look at the thickness of the magazine and think about how many children are included. Let us consider a few of them. The magazine says:

Ricky is nine. I make it clear for the record that Ricky is not the child's real name. Joel and Joseph are brothers aged two and four. Thomas, six, appears with his sister, Crystal, aged five. Sapphire, aged nine, is shown with her sister Lauren, seven. Now we move on to the children who are very hard to place, not necessarily because they are difficult but because they are siblings and need to be placed together. Adam, aged 11, is featured with Tamara, nine, and Damien, seven. Finally, a lovely group of boys, aged four to 12, smile out at us—Leonard, Thomas, Jamie and William. For 30 seconds I look at them and think, XWouldn't it be great to take those four boys home?" If my husband is listening, he will be panicking by now.

The children look nice and are smiling out from their photos, but they have all had a difficult start in life. They have experienced rejection and they have behavioural difficulties. They will test the patience of the most loving, caring and resilient person, not because they are bad children or because they want to behave like that, but because of their experiences.

Mr. Brazier: The hon. Lady speaks with feeling, as always, and I strongly agree with the point that she just made. Surely, however, because of the ghastly experiences that most of those children have had in their birth families, it follows that the hard and fast requirement in many of the advertisements for a great deal of contact with the birth family is bound to put off potential adopters.

Ms Munn: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. One lesson we have learned over the years is that if children have an awareness of their identity and an understanding of who they are, it helps the stability of the adoptive placement. For every child, but particularly for older children, a thorough assessment is needed of what, if any, contact is in the interests of the child. For some children, the right decision is that there should be no contact, ever. That may be the case for children who have been subjected to multiple familial abuse.

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For many other children, whose parents have simply been unable to provide the necessary care and support, letterbox contact may be appropriate. It may be important for older children to know that they will see grandma, for example, every six weeks, every six months or once a year. That may help them to settle. It may help a child to know that although he is not seeing his mum and dad or his older brother, they are still all right. We cannot make blanket decisions about contact because it is important not only to consider the needs of the child but—and this is where the hon. Gentleman had a valid point—to consider realistically what prospective adoptive parents can cope with. Those are the two sides of the argument.

Unfortunately, we often end up talking about poor practice and about local authorities that are not doing a good job. When we do that, we do an incredible disservice to children, to hard-working social workers and to the local authorities that are doing a good job. It is always the bad cases that hit the press, but there is a lot of good work, and we need to ensure that all local authorities have good practice and achieve high standards.

Mr. Brazier: I certainly agree with the hon. Lady that we need to emphasise the spectrum of quality and try to raise the standards of all local authorities as high as the best. She acknowledged that it is crucial to take into account the needs of adoptive parents if we want to get them on board. That is precisely why it seems to me so wrong to predetermine the details about optimum contact without taking into account the wishes of prospective adopters. We should let adopters get further down the line before those details are set.

Ms Munn: I shall come on to the detail of the process shortly. Contact details are included in the magazine to give an indication of what is required. Some prospective adopters would say that they could not cope with having contact with the parents, so there would be no point in them even inquiring about certain children. Others would say that they were not sure about contact, so the issue would have to be negotiated.

It is clearly nonsense to suggest that many unmarried parents do not bring up their children in a stable relationship: they clearly do. So why do we want to rule out the possibility of unmarried couples applying to be adopters for some of the children who are waiting for a home? This is not about statistics. It is not about the number of relationships that break down or the number of people who live in gay relationships and how long they have been together. It is about matching children to homes. For that reason, I want to cover the process of applying in detail.

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