Adoption and Children Bill

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Jacqui Smith: Given that the assessment process expected for intercountry adoption is not more onerous than that for domestic adoptions—they are the same—is the hon. Gentleman arguing the process for adoption from overseas should have fewer safeguards than that for adoption in this country?

Tim Loughton: As the Minister knows full well, I am suggesting precisely the opposite. In practice—the figures set against the total number of children adopted bear this out—various local authorities make it harder to adopt through the intercountry route by over-egging some of the perfectly reasonable and right requirements. I am in no way suggesting what the Minister rather mischievously suggested I was suggesting.

Mr. Shaw: It would be interesting to hear about authorities that require a lot of information and ones that require less. Can the hon. Gentleman give examples?

Tim Loughton: It would be entirely iniquitous of me to do so. I certainly do not want to display the attitude shown by the Secretary of State for Health when he attended the Local Government Association conference of people from social services departments. He waved his finger at them and named and shamed departments rather than giving them the support that they needed. We all know that certain social services departments operate in the most awful conditions. Vacancies for child care workers in some boroughs in London and the south-east are running at as high as 50 per cent., which compounds the problem.

Mr. Brazier: Two points need to be made. First, the Minister is factually incorrect. My understanding is that there is an extra stage for overseas adopters in that an overseas adoption also has to be approved by the Department of Health, which can overturn the decision of the social services department. That does not apply to domestic adoptions, so the process for overseas adopters is longer.

Secondly, I have just been on the telephone to the Adoption Forum's director, Liv O'Hanlon, who is also an overseas adopter. It might help the Committee to know that she says that it has cases on its books of people who have been waiting more than 18 months for a home study, because departments are struggling to find places for their own children in care and they keep putting those people's files to the bottom of the pile. We discussed that point more generally under a previous amendment.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for backing up my argument.

Mr. Shaw: I intervene again not to ask the hon. Gentleman or his hon. Friend to name and shame departments, but to question their sweeping statements. It is on the record that during an evidence session I asked the lady to whom the hon. Member for Canterbury referred about sweeping statements about foster carers—I think that she referred in evidence to people who were little better than well informed amateurs or something like that. However, in shaping the legislation, we need to be specific. Sweeping statements are simply not good enough to bolster an argument.

Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury gave examples of people who seem to be waiting an inordinately long time.

Mr. Brazier: I shall give one more example, so that we can be absolutely concrete and people cannot argue that there are any grey areas. As a measure of the overstretch in the system, two of the four voluntary agencies that the Minister mentions—Childlink and Norwood Ravenswood—recently suspended indefinitely all services to international adopters.

Tim Loughton: Those are the two agencies to which I referred earlier. I have examined the rigorous process of home studies and my hon. Friend has mentioned the additional stage after all the studies have been done and the whole package has been put before a panel that decides yes or no, which is that the Department of Health has to approve—or not—the application. As the law stands, there is no appeal against its denial. When we debate clause 12, will the Government enlighten us about whether there are any forms of redress for prospective intercountry adopters who are turned down and then find that the Department of Health ruled against them, even through they were recommended by their local adoption agency?

4.45 pm

Liz Blackman: For the hon. Gentleman's information, I should put it on record that the Department of Health does not ''approve'' as an additional part of the process and make the procedure longer.

Tim Loughton: I am confused. My information is that the Department has a say in whether an intercountry adoption takes place.

Ms Munn: Perhaps I can assist. The papers go to the Department, but the process up to that stage is exactly the same as for someone who wants to adopt within Britain. The papers go to the Department so that it can check that the procedures have been correctly followed—it is not an approval process. Yes, it is an extra stage, but there is not additional paperwork and it is not an approval process. I hope that that is clear.

Tim Loughton: But it is an extra stage, which begs the question why the Department finds it necessary to check intercountry adoption processes but not every ordinary adoption and home study. The hon. Lady has confirmed my assertion that an extra stage is inserted in the system.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman suggests that the Department of Health is prolonging the process and making matters more difficult. Does he not accept that the Department will be ensuring that all the necessary information has been gathered so that it can issue a certificate of eligibility? That certificate can be used by overseas adopters to assure other countries that they have gone through all the suitable processes, thereby ensuring that the adopters do not have to go through the processes again. Should that not be seen as a way of assisting communication between countries, not as something that lengthens the process?

Tim Loughton: The Minister and I are saying the same thing. However, she cannot deny that an extra period of indeterminate length, which does not apply to non-intercountry adoptions, is being added to the process to ensure that everything in this country happens properly.

Liz Blackman: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: No, or we will never make progress with the new clause.

The figures do not bear out the claim that intercountry adoptions have been promoted in recent years. There is a feeling among prospective intercountry adopters that they are in some way regarded as second-class citizens. Many adoptions come from the United States and European countries where standards might be expected to be high. Perhaps more worryingly, child care workers in my constituency told me that of 50 home assessments that they undertook, 10 were for intercountry adoption. That is a large percentage, but they said that the majority of children are coming from China and Thailand. The record of care that one would expect from a Chinese children's home, for example, leaves a lot to be desired. I am told that 98 per cent. of adopted children from China are female, which is no coincidence, having much to do with China's attitude to the superiority of the male sex and the terrible ramifications of that.

The Minister mentioned that the extra stage might speed up the process in the country from which the children are coming. Applicants must choose a country, prove their links to and interest in it and then stick with it. It would be unfortunate if, as sometimes happens for political reasons, that country were to close its overseas adoption programme. The couple would have to go to another country for reassessment, which means another panel sending a reference to the Department of Health. Other European countries with a strong commitment to the development of children's welfare create packages, including tax breaks and adoption leave, which help applicants to succeed in bringing needy children into their family.

We will deal with the issue of adoption services in our deliberations on clause 2 next week. We hear that although local authorities will be legally obliged to carry out assessments of need, they will not be required to provide adoption support services. If we are going to impose a greater requirement on local authorities to provide services to adoptive families, we should take children adopted from overseas into consideration. Their needs are no less than those of an adopted child from this country—in fact, often their needs are greater because of the additional problems of assimilating a child from a foreign culture who speaks a foreign language and so on.

New clause 3 would ensure that intercountry adopters would not suffer discrimination and that they would receive the same support as all other adoptions. It would also ensure that cost or differences between local authorities will not create a disincentive to home assessment. Those are the principles behind the new clause, which I commend to the Committee.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman suggests that the Government are unsympathetic to intercountry adoption, even though I have made it clear that that is not the case. To reinforce the point, I remind him that we had a lengthy debate last week about putting the child at the centre of the adoption process. That is right, whether in domestic or in intercountry adoptions. The Government have clearly stated that when it is in the interests of the child to be adopted through an intercountry adoption, the same safeguards apply as for domestic adoptions. Support and services should be available for people engaged in intercountry adoptions.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that the number of intercountry adoptions was falling—

Tim Loughton: No.

Jacqui Smith: I am glad to hear that, because the number of intercountry adoptions has increased. He compared, apparently unfavourably, the number of intercountry adoptions in this country with those in France and other European countries. He should remember that the United Kingdom has more domestic adoptions that any other European country. France and Denmark, for example, have barely any domestic adoptions, which means that their people are more likely to adopt from overseas. Other countries also adopt less from care, hence more people adopt from abroad. Only about 1 per cent. of children in care in Norway are adopted, and about 1.5 per cent. in France.

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Prepared 6 December 2001