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4 Nov 2002 : Column 61—continued

6 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) exploded some of the myths employed in the debate in the House of Lords. Similarly, I want to explode some of the myths mentioned today, especially those raised by the hon. Members for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). Local authorities are trying to get more people to adopt. I wish that it was as easy as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham

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suggested. He said that we have a specific number of married couples, and that even if only a proportion of them come forward as adopters there will be homes for all the children. If it were that easy, we probably would not be having this debate, but the fact is that more children are waiting for adoptive homes than there are prospective adopters.

The local authority advertises for more adopters, perhaps for children aged four to seven, and it invites people who phone up to inquire to an open evening. At that stage, some people will decide that it is not for them. Others, however, might think that adoption is for them as a couple, but that they are not ready for it. They might have discovered that they cannot have children of their own and want to go down the route of IVF before returning in two, three or four years' time. Others might think, XWhoops. This is a big life-changing experience. Let's go away and think about it." That explains the drop-out figure. It is a serious and major decision. That might be seen as an obstacle, but I think that it is right that people properly consider whether they should proceed with an adoption.

The next process is training, where people hear more about the children. Most people do not know the background of the children who appear in XBe My Parent" or even those who are up for more straightforward adoption. They learn about the importance of identity and the adoption process. Some people at that point will decide that adoption is not for them. It might not be what they thought it would be or they might decide that they want to have a baby. That is not an obstacle; it is the natural process of people making a decision about a serious matter in their life.

People then have individual assessments with their social worker. We heard much about how social workers put people off, but most of them spend time talking to people about why they want to adopt. They consider their experiences and what they have to offer. At that stage, some people will be counselled out, as we referred to it professionally, perhaps because they have not come to terms with the fact that they cannot have their own child. That could be seen as another obstacle, but I think it is right that people properly consider whether adoption is right for them.

At the end of the process, the social worker tells the adoption panel whether a couple or single person should be approved to adopt. That follows a long discussion on what sort of child is right for them. For some people, it is an issue of gender; perhaps they have boys in their family and want to adopt a girl. For others, it is an issue of age; if they already have children, they will want the right age gap. Those details are considered. We do not have blanket approval of adoptive parents. The idea that we will end up with lots of couples vying for the same child is nonsense. People come into the process with different abilities and skills, which they offer to adopted children.

Providing everything goes smoothly, 94 per cent. of people who are presented to adoption panels are approved, which has already been mentioned. In my five years of chairing an adoption panel and being a decision maker, I think we turned down one person. Local authorities are not in the business of putting up artificial barriers to stop people adopting. There are children who need to be adopted. The social workers know them and

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are heartbroken because they cannot find them homes. Local authorities are not in the business of turning people away for spurious reasons.

Tim Loughton: I am listening closely. Of course the decision should be down to people on the ground, but only if they are not constrained by preconceptions. How does the hon. Lady explain the enormous disparity between the number of successful applications in different social services areas, ranging from 2 to 10 per cent? I do not know the figure for Sheffield now or in her time there, but surely those areas where the application rate is much less successful can learn from the more successful areas. That is one thing that we want.

Ms Munn: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I said that there is good practice, better practice and poor practice. I am not defending poor practice. Those areas that are demonstrating poor practice need to be examined and to improve. I have no quibble with that.

What happens next to prospective adopters? Social workers have children who need placements. They tell the adoption team about them and a matching process takes place. If a social worker is lucky, she might have two or three couples or sets of people from which to choose. It is more likely that there will be one choice or the team might say that it has someone in the pipeline. It is nonsense to suggest that a social worker says, XI'm politically correct and I want a gay couple for this child." That does not happen. Social workers are desperate for families and want a couple who meet a child's needs.

In my experience social workers are more conservative—perhaps that is not in their defence—than most hon. Members. For good reasons, most of them want two parents: a mother and a father. They prefer the mum to stay at home because the children—there might be two or three of them—have such demanding needs. They will not specify the mum, but at least one parent needs to have time to spend with the children. Social workers consider each case from the point of view of the child. It would be wrong to place a young girl who has been badly sexually abused and who has a range of needs in a household where there is a man. She could not deal with that. I am not saying that all men are a risk to that child, but it might be right for that child to have two women—two mothers—to provide care and support. It is important to match the needs of the child with a family.

On specifying the ethnicity of a child, I strongly believe that most children grow up best in circumstances that reflect their identity. They do that because those parents will naturally understand that child's background, but it must not be a given. A child should not languish in care because there is no exact match. As chair of the adoption panel, I faced a proposal to match a child from a Muslim background with a family in which one parent was a Hindu. My first reaction was, XMy goodness, that is a difficult match," but when we investigated the case, looking into the child's background and the ability of the couple with whom we were placing the child to respect the child's religious background, we realised that it was absolutely the right

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thing to do—right for the child, because it was the best match we could get. The child was mixed race, as was the family to whom it was going.

Mr. Brazier: The hon. Lady is talking about good practice, but she will remember from the Standing Committee the case of Natalie, who was in care as a baby and therefore in by far the easiest category to place. She was refused to a single mother—a woman who had the means to support her and who, like Natalie, was of middle eastern-European origin—on the ground that the lady was Christian, whereas the baby's origins were Islamic. The good practice that she describes is simply not happening across the spectrum.

Ms Munn: The hon. Gentleman rightly highlights an example of poor practice. I am not here to defend poor practice. The Bill is about continuing to promote good practice. Since their election in 1997, the Labour Government have set out to improve adoption practice and have put in substantial additional resources. That is right, but we should set our standards high and do our best for the children, and the best thing that we can do for those children is to widen the pool. Yes, we should get more married couples to come forward to adopt—we should all talk adoption up.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): My hon. Friend is aware that many children cannot be placed by local authorities and are referred to voluntary bodies. Before becoming a Member of Parliament, I worked for Barnardo's trying to place some of the most damaged children in the area in which I worked. I support my hon. Friend's point that there is a severe shortage of prospective adoptive parents to take damaged children, whether the children are physically disabled—we placed children from hospitals who physically could do hardly anything—or behaviourally disturbed, which presents a major problem—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Lady has made her point.

Ms Munn: My hon. Friend makes an important point, which goes to the heart of our debate. There are many children out there who need homes. If there were more adopters than children waiting for adoption, there might be some merit in the arguments that we have heard, but there are 5,000 children waiting for adoptive homes—not 5,000 families who want to adopt. How can we, in all conscience, deny any of those children a home?

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) referred to eight children in respect of whom only single parents had inquired. Look into the faces of those eight children and tell them that the person making the inquiry cannot be considered for providing them with a permanent home because he or she is not married. I am not prepared to do that, and I hope that Conservative Members are not prepared to do so either.

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