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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that question. These are difficult issues in terms of the relationship between birth parents, the adoptive parents and the child who has been adopted. I am aware of some of the tensions and, sometimes, the difficult situations in which adoptive parents have found themselves. There clearly is no easy answer. I do not have specific answers.
Having a support system for adoptive parents after the child has been adopted would enable the adoptive parents to talk over those problems with and seek advice from a key worker within the local authority's adoption service. That might not be as much comfort as the noble Lord would wish. But it is important that parents who have taken the step of adopting a child feel that at the end of the day they are not on their own: that if they need to look for information, advice and support, it is there.
The noble Lord asked whether birth parents were being given new rights under the proposals. No, there are no new rights. But we recognise that losing a child is a significant event for an entire family. Therefore one believes that birth families should be given support and help. They need to understand the adoption process and to come to terms with the child being adopted if that is in the child's best interests.
Perhaps I may seek assurance that in assessing parents social workers will not ask irrelevant questions about the religious or political affiliation of prospective parents. I base the question on information given to me by my own very good social worker about the reasons why parents have been prohibited from adopting--for instance, through membership of a perfectly legal political party or a perfectly respectable small religious sect.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness will accept that we do not believe the process should be governed by ideological political correctness but by a sensible, level-headed approach to assessing the ability of potential adopters to take on an adopted child.
We publish today the draft national standards. They will set out clearly what adopters can expect from the assessment process, including the criteria to be used. The standards and code of practice that will back them up will ensure that assessment decisions are made on a clear and consistent basis across the country. That is certain to mean that inappropriate questions will not be posed. If they are posed, a performance management of the whole process would pick that up.
One of the important developments that we shall take forward is to set up a review mechanism. If the application of adoptive parents is rejected, they will have the right to a fully independent review of the case. An independent body appointed by the Secretary of State would convene a review panel to look again at all the evidence and make a new recommendation to the agency, either in support of or against the original decision. The adoption agency, which will still be the body responsible for placement, will have to take account of any new recommendation before making a final decision.
Clearly, we hope that in many cases the issue will not need to go that far, because the adoption process should be handled in a professional and acceptable way, but at least there is a backup for the circumstances that my noble friend mentioned so that parents can ask for the case to be reviewed.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, I warmly welcome the Minister's Statement and the documentation that goes with it. It is good to know that the Government are fully committed to facilitating and supporting adoption. I very much hope that they will be successful
However, large numbers of children will remain in children's homes. Will the Minister assure us that the staff in those homes are not being forgotten? What do the Government have in mind for their training and their pay and conditions? Work in children's homes must not be seen as a dead-end job.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising the issue of the management of children's homes. He is right that some children will continue to reside in children's homes. At the moment about 6,500 children are resident in children's homes in England. We need to do everything that we can to ensure that they receive the effective care and support that they need. We all know that there have been a number of inquiries into children's homes over the past few years that have shown considerable failings, not least in the lack of support from local authorities for the staff and managers working in those homes and in the quality of training of the staff who work there. The Quality Protects programme is the start of a process of investing and prioritising the provision of children's services and ensuring a more professional approach, backed up by the monitoring and performance management with which the Social Services Inspectorate is concerned in relation to the overall performance of local authorities.
In addition, the general social care council will have an important role in raising standards among the 1 million people who work in the care industry. When it is established, it is likely to concentrate initially on qualified professional social workers and then on residential care workers, including the staff of children's homes, because those are important priorities. The process of improvement will make that possible, provided that we can at the same time attract more good people into the social care workforce, which is a tremendous challenge for the Government and for individual employers.
Perhaps I can take this opportunity to clarify a point that I made to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. The #66 million within the Quality Protects programme is not ring-fenced for adoption services, but it is part of the Quality Protects specific grant. That is what I meant by ring-fencing. We will expect local authorities to spend the necessary money to ensure that adoption services are properly organised and run. The performance management process will pick up any problems.
Lord Winston: My Lords, I greatly welcome the Statement. I briefly declare my interests. First, I have had lifelong contact with adoption. My mother was in social work and in her time she probably placed more
I have a couple of important points to make that cannot be overplayed. The first is the situation with social workers. It is very welcome that efforts will be made to improve their status, because there are clearly major problems with the way in which adoptive parents are handled, often insensitively and sometimes almost arrogantly. That is a pity, not least because many infertile people who would undoubtedly be very good parents do not regard adoption as a path that they should follow. I suspect that there are a lot of prospective parents who would be prepared to adopt children, even at an older age, if there were better support at their initial contact with social services. The Government's measures on that will be greatly welcomed.
The noble Earl, Lord Howe, emphasised the tremendous importance of the formative years, particularly the first year of life. That is when neurological connections are made. It is very beneficial if babies can be got into a stable relationship at that stage.
I have one brief question for the Minister. A number of couples who cannot adopt in the United Kingdom seek adoption outside the UK. Do the Government have any plans to improve the counselling, advice and regulation for such couples?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend is right that we need to think about how to increase the number of prospective adoptive parents. There is clearly a shortage at the moment. To reach our target we shall need to encourage more parents to come forward as adopters. The most effective way to do that will be by ensuring that the process is sympathetic, supportive and efficient. Many of the problems that we currently face with the shortage of adoptive parents stem from the number of hurdles that they have to go through, which can lead them to becoming discouraged and finding the process very off-putting. If we get that right, I am sure that we shall be able to attract more parents to adopt. That must be encouraged.
My noble friend may recall the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999, which provides a statutory basis for the regulation of intercountry adoption to afford children living abroad the maximum protection from adoption trafficking. The Act created a framework of minimum standards to be applied by countries that have ratified, so that intercountry adoption takes place only when it is in the best interests of the child. A commencement order under the 1999 Act was made on 10th January 2000 and came into effect on 31st January 2000. It provides a much more effective regulatory system. The White Paper proposes no further structural changes to intercountry adoptions, but fairer, faster and more transparent new adoption standards will impact on adoption agencies that approve adopters for overseas adoptions.
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