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Hearing the voice of the child is especially important for children with disability who are placed away from home on 52-week-a-year residential placements. We in
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Blackpool are fortunate, in that a Lancashire child can usually be placed fairly near home, because Lancashire is such a large county. However, I know of many other young people who are placed far away from home, because there are no local services. My fear is that some of those children who are placed away from home will not receive visitors, will perhaps lose touch with their families, will not have someone who can speak up for them and might feel that their voices are not being heard.

Those young people not only need advocacy services, but should at least be considered for looked-after status, as the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign and other campaigners have argued strongly. Many of them will already have looked-after status, but there are some 338 disabled children on long-term placements away from home who are not looked-after children. Some of those children might not need looked-after status. I am not urging the Minister to ensure that every child affected should have looked-after status, because that might not be appropriate. However, local authorities, which currently have a duty when placing a child away from home to consider looked-after status should do so within strengthened guidance from the Government.

I fear that there is a good deal of confusion about what looked-after status means. It does not necessarily mean a child being in care. A child can be looked-after under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, which means that the parent still has parental responsibility but is working in partnership with the local authority. That would be the ideal outcome for many young people. We have heard in many contributions this evening about the importance of maintaining a child in the family or, if they have to be taken out of the family for whatever reason, of maintaining the link with the family. If a disabled child is looked-after under section 20 of the 1989 Act, those links can be maintained. The child can still have that family link, but receive all the benefits that looked-after status brings.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) listed some of those benefits, which include the entitlement to a social worker, three-monthly visits from the social worker, a care plan and contact plan, health assessments and a health plan. However, there is another key aspect, in that if the child has looked-after status for 14 weeks prior to their 18th birthday, the council has further duties of care at least until that child is 21. For a child with disability, that can be even more important than for other children in care in the looked-after system.

For all those reasons, I hope that the Minister will consider strengthening the guidance. There was some debate in the other place about every child being looked after, but I am not saying that; I am putting the needs of the child first, and doing this for every child would not necessarily be in the best interests of some children—it should be considered at the very least, however. I note that a report from the four UK children’s commissioners to the United Nations committee on the rights of the child, stated:

I agree with those four commissioners.

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I shall move on to make some brief comments on the proposals to establish social work practices. Social work practices could offer new opportunities to support young people and provide new opportunities for social workers to practise more creatively in supporting them. I am sure that local authorities would like to see clearer guidance from the Government on their role with regard to social work practices and on how their development might impact on the services that local authorities directly provide.

As the chair of the all-party group on social care, I know that we have recently completed an inquiry into the challenges facing the social care work force. Our key findings concerned status, recruitment and involvement. If these social care practices can improve the status, recruitment and involvement of social workers, they will be welcome. I know that the British Association of Social Workers has welcomed these proposals—well, it has certainly welcomed the setting up of pilots. Let us make sure that the pilots are practical, that they are spread around different parts of the country and that lessons are learned from them. If the pilots are successful, let us roll them out.

I note that some voluntary sector organisations say that they may rethink whether to bid to be involved in the pilots, mainly because of the possibility of proposals to pay them according to performance outcomes. I am sure that the Minister will liaise with those voluntary sector organisations on the development of an outcomes framework, which could be linked to payments in such a way as to reassure such organisations about their involvement in social work practices. It could be a win-win situation.

I finish by saying that I welcome the Bill, which includes wide-ranging measures that will improve the life chances of the very vulnerable young people for whom we, local authorities and parents have a responsibility. We should all work together to ensure that those responsibilities are fulfilled so that we and those young people can move on.

8.23 pm

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), who speaks with such authority on this subject, as, indeed, did my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson). I am delighted to have the opportunity to endorse the tribute paid by the hon. Lady to my hon. Friend, who I am sure the whole House would agree has made a very distinguished maiden speech. He observed all the conventions, but he did much more than that. He paid eloquent tribute, quite rightly, to his predecessor and to his constituency, while also bringing to bear his experience and expertise on the subject matter of this debate in a very telling way. I predict that my hon. Friend will have a long and distinguished career in this House. It was a privilege to be present at such an auspicious start to his journey.

The House will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to develop the incidental reference in the opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) to the 2005 Conservative election manifesto. That is not my purpose this evening.
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I, too, welcome the Bill, but I want to focus on a particular aspect that has not yet been touched on this evening.

Clause 8 gives the Secretary of State a statutory duty to promote the well-being of children, and part 3 sets out a number of provisions relating to adoption. It is to the law and practice of adoption that I wish to address my remarks. Clause 8 is, of course, quite right. There is no more profound duty for society as a whole than the well-being of children. We have all been shocked again and again by incidents of the most terrible abuse inflicted on children—incidents that we find it very difficult to believe can occur in our country in the 21st century. That applies, too, where what happens does not hit the headlines and falls far short of grievous abuse, as many children in our society suffer disadvantage of one kind or another.

The ideal environment in which a child should grow up is a loving family. That is what is most likely to increase the sum of human happiness. That is what is most likely to lead to children growing up to enjoy full and satisfying lives. That is what is most likely to lead to their avoiding a life of unemployment and crime.

Nothing I say this afternoon should be taken to reflect on the dedication of those who look after our children who are in care. They have a difficult task and I pay tribute to them—to the vast majority of them—who do their very best to perform this task in a selfless and conscientious way. But the statistics tell us clearly that children in care do less well—significantly less well—than other children. The gap between the words with which the Minister for Children, Young People and Families opened her speech and the reality is, alas, a large one.

In September 1999, the Government established 11 objectives for children’s social services in England. I shall not go through all 11; I do not need to, because some of the examples that I intended to cite have already been cited by the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. Let me nevertheless touch on one or two. For example, 13.4 per cent. of looked-after children missed at least 25 days of schooling in 2006. Among year 11 students in 2006, 66 per cent. of looked-after children obtained at least one GCSE at grade A* to G or GNVQ, compared with a national figure of 98 per cent.—66 per cent. as compared with 98 per cent.

Most tellingly of all, perhaps, during the year ending 30 September 2006, looked-after children aged 10 or older were more than twice as likely to have received a conviction or a final warning or reprimand than other children.

The conclusion that I think any sensible Government would draw from that depressing litany of statistics is that where there is a viable alternative to care, and in particular where it is possible for a child to be brought up within and by a loving family, everything possible should be done to facilitate that alternative, to encourage it and to smooth the path of those who want to provide it.

The most obvious alternative, or at least one of the most obvious, is adoption. Of course, that will not be possible in all cases for every child, and of course great care must be taken to ensure that any potential adoptive
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parent is properly checked and helped to understand the difficulties and pitfalls that may lie ahead, but surely that does not mean that those who could provide a loving family should be discouraged, deterred or forced, as so many are, to look abroad for the child they want to bring into their family, yet as we all know, that is exactly what happens in far too many cases.

I have long been concerned by that state of affairs, but my interest was sharpened by a report that I read recently in The Mail on Sunday on the difficulties encountered by Gavin and Teresa Allen. Mr. Allen is an executive editor of the BBC’s “Question Time” and “Politics Show”, and Mrs. Allen is a director of a staff recruitment business. I should say that, as far as I know, I have never met either of them, although I did check with Mr. Allen this morning that he had no objection to my raising his case in the debate.

The Allens have been together for nearly 20 years and married for nearly 10. They have a comfortable home and supportive family and friends, and they were judged to be a suitable couple to adopt. They were willing to adopt any child who needed a loving family home. Yet despite years of trying, when it came down to specific decisions on specific children, adoption panels repeatedly decided that they were unsuitable in that case. They have come to the shocking and devastating conclusion that all they can offer is outweighed by the huge disadvantage of the fact that they are white and middle class.

The Allens’ story is one of many. Their story, like so many others, paints a picture of adoption that is far from what I assume any of us in the House would want to be the case. Mrs. Allen told the newspaper:

What is more, it seems that adoption panels judge a child to be from a minority ethnic group even when they are mixed race and primarily white. Mr. and Mrs. Allen say that they were repeatedly rejected because of their ethnic background

They were

Why does this happen? Why are countless children left to be disadvantaged by the care system when there are available suitable adoptive parents? Mr. and Mrs. Allen say that they believe

I pose this question to the Minister: is that state of affairs what the Government want?

According to the law, the paramount consideration in cases of adoption is the welfare of the child. That is exactly as it should be. It is true that the Adoption and Children Act 2002 requires an adoption agency to give due consideration to the child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background. It also requires an adoption agency to give due consideration to the wishes of the natural parent. But I repeat, according to the law the paramount consideration must be the welfare of the child. So, although factors such as race
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and cultural background have to be considered, they should not be able to prevent a child from being placed with adopters of a different background if that is in the child’s best interests. Yet clearly, far too often, that is what happens.

Does the reason for that perhaps lie with the statutory guidance issued by the Government under the 2002 Act? That guidance emphasises the requirements to consider the child’s religious and cultural upbringing, as well as any wishes and feelings that the child’s parents or guardian may have about those matters. Is it perhaps the case that adoption agencies and social services departments are placing too much emphasis on that part of the guidance and not enough on the paramount consideration of the welfare of the child?

The answers to those questions seem to me to be of great significance. If social service departments are misinterpreting the law, and misinterpreting or failing to apply the law and the Government’s guidance, that might provide my party—and particularly my hon. Friends on the Front Bench—with a rare opportunity to change things while still in opposition nationally. After all, many—probably most—of the local authorities that exercise political control of their social services departments are now in the hands of the Conservative party. If those departments are getting it wrong, my hon. Friends should be able to use their influence to put the situation right. If, on the other hand, the guidance is wrong, the Government should change it. If, contrary to what seems to be the case, the law is wrong, the law should be changed, and this Bill provides the opportunity to do it.

I would very much like the Minister to answer the following questions. Is he satisfied with the current state of affairs on adoption? If not—I hope that he is not satisfied—why does he think that social services departments and adoption agencies are getting it wrong, and what does he propose to do about it? I look forward to his replies.

8.36 pm

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this very important debate, especially as it is about protecting some of the most vulnerable children in our society.

The proposals are fantastic and will no doubt improve the general health and well-being of looked-after children. However, I want to speak briefly about extending those protections to all our children, and about a reform that is currently not in the Bill but should be—a ban on all forms of violence against all children.

I declare an interest as both a trustee of the UK Youth Parliament and a passionate supporter of the Children Are Unbeatable! Alliance—a cross-party umbrella group of more than 400 different organisations and professionals, which campaigns on the single issue of making the physical punishment or chastisement of children illegal.

This year, hundreds of thousands of children will be hit—with the approval of the law. If we were talking about any other group of people, there would be a public outcry. We would not be allowed to hide behind euphemisms such as “smacking” or “a clip round the ear”. If I were to hit someone whose behaviour I found unacceptable, I would be acting illegally. If I were to hit
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my five-month-old baby in a supermarket just because he was screaming, there would be little protection for him against such violence.

Smacking means deliberately hurting children as punishment. It should have no place in a modern, civilised society, especially at the moment when we are trying to put an end to all forms of violence. Parliament must send an unequivocal message that hitting all children is as unacceptable and unlawful as hitting anyone else. This is an equality and human rights issue. Children and young people do not have the same rights and protections as adults, yet are often in far more vulnerable situations.

I urge hon. Members to listen to the professionals working with children and families, who say that the unclear, unsafe and unjust legal defence of “reasonable punishment” in section 58 of the Children Act 2004 should be abolished right now to give children equal protection from assault. I refer to the Government’s public consultation only year, which concluded:

Our own children’s commissioners last week called for urgent action on the issue. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child says that reform should be an “immediate and unqualified obligation”. Above all, I urge hon. Members to listen to children—like my own five-month-old who cannot even speak yet—and to hear their fears and concerns. When the time comes for a fuller debate on the issue, I hope that all Members of the House will give children the full legal protection from hit and hurt that all of us in here take for granted.

8.39 pm

Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): I welcome all the steps taken in the Bill, but I think the most important comment that has been made about it is that it represents a radical step change in ambitions. I am sure the Minister will not be surprised to hear that I intend to begin by talking about the ambitions that we have for our children. What has been said today suggests that our ambition is not just to keep them safe and healthy; we want them to be happy, and then, when we see them safe, healthy and happy, we want them to achieve things. We want them to develop their own potential and become fully human beings, fully part of society, and fully achieving. At every step that the Bill takes, we must retain that ambition for the children whom it seeks to support.

It is extremely welcome that the Bill places a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to promote the well-being of children in England. That is indeed a radical step change. It represents a monumental difference in the way in which we in the House behave, because if our Secretary of State has that duty, we as Members of Parliament must have a duty to ensure that it is carried out.

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