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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, before we proceed any further, it has been pointed out to me that a number of your Lordships may be in the Chamber quite properly in order to hear the Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill debate. Those noble Lords may not have seen on the screens that it has been agreed that that debate will not take place today but is postponed until Friday 21st June. I thought that it might be helpful for noble Lords to know that.
Lord Alli: My Lords, I start by congratulating the Government on bringing forward this legislation. I think that they have set themselves and us an ambitious target by proposing an increase of 40 per cent in the national adoption target by 2004-2005. I wish them the best in fulfilling it. I also applaud their aim of providing children in care with better educational support, as well as speeding up the time it takes courts to administer the adoption process. Those measures are long overdue and deserve our support.
This debate, as many noble Lords have said, is first and foremost about children. Out of the 58,000 children in institutional care, 5,000 children nationwide are currently waiting for an adoptive family. We are the fourth richest nation in the world. It is a sad comment on our society that we can tolerate so many children living in institutional care and/or waiting for adoptive families. We have an opportunity over the coming years to address some of those issues.
First, I must warn the House that the Bill is in danger of being hijacked by a debate about the eligibility of unmarried couples to adopt, and, in particular, the eligibility of same sex couples to adopt. I ask the House to think very carefully about who the victims are of this hijack. It will not be the Christian Institute which seeks to reinforce marriagewhose position I completely oppose in this debateor Stonewall (which I support) which seeks to reinforce the rights of gay and lesbian couples. The victims will be the silent ones, for they have no soap-box: they are the children in the children's homes; they are the young waiting for parents; and they are the vulnerable that needin the words of the noble Lord, Lord Northbournelove.
We should be bigger in this House and not allow what is best for children to be sidelined in this debate. We should be able to discuss sensibly the future of these childrenI know the majority of your Lordships want to do sowithout polarising our positions into a debate more fitting of Section 28 than the care of our children.
My starting point, like that of many other noble Lords, is the welfare of children. What is best for those children? I ask those who oppose the extension of adoption of children to unmarried couples to think again. I do not care if this House puts unmarried couples and same-sex couples to the back of the adoption queue. Let married couples have priority, if that is what your Lordships want. But we must face reality, because there is no adoption queue. There is no queue of couples waiting to adopt these children. Until there is, it is simply immoraland I choose my words carefullythat these children are being brought up in an institution when there are loving couples willing to adopt them.
Even if one extra couple finds one extra child and creates a home and gives him a chance to unlock his potential, this Bill will have served its purpose. I shall watch the debate carefully. I shall listen to all that is said. But I put on notice those people who seek to restrict the extension of adoption to unmarried couples, or those who try to hijack this debate. You have a moral obligation to those children in institutional care and you will have to make a case to them as to why you wish to deny them access to loving homes. If you cannot do that, or your arguments run short, I hope that this House will stand up, not for the rights of unmarried couples, gay couples, or even for the rights of married couples, but for the children who need a loving, caring home.
The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I greatly welcome the Bill, as have all your Lordships who have spoken this afternoon. Currently, the average wait for a child prior to adoption is, as the Minister said, two years and nine months. The measures in the Bill, the adoption register and post-adoption support services among them, should decrease that delay and increase the number of children adoptedwe hope by as many as 1,100 by 2005, as the Government intend.
Increasingly, older children with more complex needs are being adopted. Outcomes for such children are far better in adoption than in care. I shall concentrate my remarks on the importance of stability for such childrenstability that adoption often provides. I shall seek reassurance that the Bill's provisions for adoption support go far enough. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, the noble Baronesses, Lady Barker and Lady Young, and other noble Lords all expressed strong concern on that point. I shall consider the safety of children in contact arrangements for non-resident parents. I shall ask for the Bill to include a duty on local authorities to provide children in care or who have left care with an independent advocatethat service to be available to them when they make a complaint.
The Government are seeking to address that problem of instability. The "Quality Protects" scheme has been making some headway and has been widely welcomed. For instance, it has introduced training for most care staff to National Vocational Qualification level 3. It has funded teaching assistants for looked-after children in schools and has set a target of a maximum of three placements per annum for a looked-after child.
Under the heading of stability, the number of placements in foster care, residential care or otherwise causes the greatest concern, as many of your Lordships have said. Five per cent of looked-after children experience more than 10 moves. I am advised by Professor Jackson of the Institute of Education and the Coram Family that approximately half of looked-after children in long-term care experience frequent moves. A child may have little notice of a move. He may move into a home of strangers whom he has never met before. He may well leave behind pets and friends. He will sometimes have to leave his school. Professor Jackson reports often meeting children who have experienced between 10 and 20 moves and meeting one 12 year-old who had had 52 placements.
So the boost to adoption that the Bill provides is most welcome because adoption can, under the right circumstances, provide far greater stability in the long term for children who have been in public care. I welcome the duty on local authorities to provide a post-adoption support service, to produce a post-adoption support plan, to provide post-adoption key working and to provide assessment for those who wish it.
I am concernedI look to the Minister for reassurance on this pointthat if there is no duty on local authorities to meet the needs of adoptive families as recognised in their assessment, we may yet fail the older children with complex needs for whom we are most anxious. Young couples may adopt such children believing that they will receive the support that they are likely to need. In a few years' timeperhaps after the Government's target of 2005many of those couples may realise that they have been encouraged to take on society's most difficult and troubled children without receiving adequate support. As appears to be the case with our doctors, nurses, teachers and social workers, as a body, they may become disillusioned. Fewer adopters may come forward. The long-term project of finding the best homes for older children with complex needs may fail.
I recognise the budgetary constraints on the Minister. Local authorities are already overspending considerably and two-thirds of their overspend is directed at looked-after children. I hope that that figure is correct. However, given the long-term adverse costs of failing adequately to nurture those children, which have been so clearly described by other noble Lords, I hope that the Minister will sympathetically consider placing a further duty on local authorities.
Turning to a new subject, concern has been expressed about contact arrangements for non-resident parents. The noble Baronesses, Lady Howarth and Lady Gould, spoke eloquently on that point. I shall say only that it is estimated that about 30 per cent15,000of such cases feature domestic violence. It is recognised that the current provision for the supervision and support of contact is inadequate. I know that the Lord Chancellor's Department is beginning to address that. Could the Bill be used to raise more funds for essential contact services? For instance, might a charge on perpetrators of domestic violence for supervision be a helpful innovation? Such a charge is already extracted in the United States.
Finally, the children's consortium including the NSPCC, Barnardo's, and Voice for the Child in Care, of which I am patron, has been seeking to obtain a duty on local authorities to furnish children in public care and care leavers with an independent advocate when the child or care leaver has a complaint. It has sought that for three years. The Bill may be the last opportunity for several years to grant children that right in statute. Given all that we know about the experience of care and given what I said about stability, I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to my request.
I welcome the improved prospects that the Bill brings for providing good, loving and stable homes for children in the situation once faced by people such as David Pelzer, Alison Cooper and the other young man whom I mentioned, as they start out in life.
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, the Bill is a major overhaul of the adoption system. I welcome many of its provisions. In the main, it builds on the significant work undertaken by the Conservative government to improve the framework for adoption in this country. It is fitting that we should pay tribute to the work of the honourable Member for Meriden, who did so much in the other place to return the issue to prominence. I also pay tribute to the work done by professional and voluntary agencies. I agree with the Minister that we should be grateful to families who adopt and foster children.
No one could fail to be moved by the stories of so many children who are waiting for adoption. I was deeply moved by the family-finding magazines Children Who Wait and Be My Parent. More and more children enter the care system with ever greater problems, caused by neglect and abuse. The hurt is obvious behind the smiles of the children in those
Children who are emotionally disabled as a result of neglect in the first months of life are the hardest to help. Such children place the greatest strain on adoptive families. There is a crisis of need among children of isolated single parentsmainly motherswho abuse drugs and alcohol. Often, those mothers are exploited by a series of male partners, and they are likely to neglect their children, who are also at risk from those partners.
There is increasing evidence from neuroscience and neurobiology that neglect in the first months of life profoundly affects the development of a child's brain. Often, such children will be hyperactive and unable to concentrate or to form bonds of affection with other human beings. If they are boys, they are likely to be antisocial and aggressive; if they are girls, they will be withdrawn and depressed. They are prone to mental illness in childhood or later life. Because the damage has occurred at a critical period of brain development, it is impossible to cure it. That is why love is not enough. Families adopting a child who has been neglected or abused must have access to support from properly trained doctors, therapists, social workers and psychologists. Striking statistics from the Department of Health show a steady rise in the number and proportion of children coming into care because of the risk ofor actualabuse or neglect.
Recently, there has been a small but encouraging growth in the number of fostering and adoption placements of children with physical, emotional or behavioural disabilities. In practice, however, many such children have experienced multiple failures in placement. If stability of placement for any moved child is to be maintained, children need thorough assessment and active co-operation between the health, education and social services to ensure good quality care and support.
The Government's response to the Children's Safeguards Review document of November 1998 included sensible recommendations for improving multi-agency co-operation. They included the pooling of budgets by social services and the NHS and the piloting of joint reviews, involving the Social Services Inspectorate, Ofsted and the Audit Commission. In 1991, in his review, Children in the Public Care, Sir William Utting expressed concern at the particular vulnerability of children with disabilities. He emphasised the need for the appointment of independent visitors who would play an important role in protecting children from abuse, providing access to representation and complaints procedures and monitoring the child's care plan.
The backdrop to the Bill is the radical change in the nature of adoption over the past 30 years. In 1970, there were 20,000 adoptions; now, there are only 4,000. The number of children in care is, typically, now
Many married couples would like to adopt. The problem is the delays that occur between each stage of the system. Worse still are the manifestly unjust and irrelevant recommendations on adopters' lifestyles that have been identified by the Government's Performance and Innovation Unit. I hope that the rules relating to mixed-race couples and older couples can be relaxed to widen the scope for adoption by married couples.
I welcome the commitment to the improvement of adoption support services. That is a step towards providing a better framework for assessing the needs of adoptive parents and ensuring that the child and the parents have the best possible environment for care. Similarly, the improved registration processes will provide greater assurance of quality and effectiveness, coupled with greater consistency. However, I have a problem with the Bill's definition of couples who are suitable to be adoptive parents. The interests of the child must be paramount in all cases, and the Bill aims to enshrine that as a cardinal principle of adoption policy. Although I accept the genuine desire to expand the pool of potential parents, I do not accept that that should drive adoption policy at the expense of the child.
An adoptive child, even in the most stable environment has a great deal with which to cope emotionally. Feelings of rejection and the problems of coming to terms with the concept of adoption are considerable. I am, therefore, concerned at the plans to include unmarried and homosexual couples. Marriage has the strongest potential to create a powerful, stable unit. Unmarried couples who have children are six and a half times more likely to split up than married couples. Looked-after children are already the casualties of broken relationships. It cannot be right to place them in an environment in which, according to the statistics, historyin the form of custody battles and the likeis likely to be repeated. The necessary long-term commitment to the child is much more likely if the long-term commitment of marriage is present.
The question of homosexual couples as adoptive parents is in my view even more clear cut. The welfare of the child is the most important element. I am not an intolerant Christian, but I do not believe that homosexual couples would provide as stable a foundation for adoption as a heterosexual couple. A great stain would be placed on the child as he or she grows up.
The points of concern I have raised are serious ones, but the Bill has much to commend it. I look forward to its next stages and to helping constructively to ensure the best possible framework within which adoption may continue to play a pivotal role in securing stable and loving families for children who desperately need them.
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, my noble friend Lady Barker, in a memorably humane and broadly based speech which demonstrated her grasp of the difficult issues lying behind the Bill, has laid down the broad approach these Benches will take. I shall deal with a few details rather than attempt to parallel the strength of her speech.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Lord, Lord Astor, who spoke immediately before me, like many noble Lords highlighted the benefits to children of adoptive parents as compared with life in a dangerous or unsuitable birth family or in a children's home. It is for that reason that, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Astor, I support the availability to children of stable and loving homes provided by unmarried or single-sex couples.
I give wholehearted support to the emphasis that my noble friend laid on the importance of post-adoption support. As she said, whereas the obligatory assessment of post-adoption support of both adoptive parents and adopted children has been widely welcomed, there has been equally widespread concern that the provision of such support is not obligatory.
The Minister may feel that he can reassure us that the Government's intention is to make post-adoption support available to parents and children who need it when they need it and at the level at which they need it, but I doubt he will be able to convince us without detailed examination of the relevant clauses in Committee. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that the cost of such services, as and when they are provided, is likely to be far less than the cost of remedying other problems such as offending behaviour, and we should not forget that family breakdown is the single greatest predictor of such behaviour.
I have witnessed a young offender's distress and desperation at the cruelty he has both witnessed and suffered in his parental home and his realisation that his own capacity to relate to others has been damaged by his childhood experience. We must bear that in mind at all times. This is one area where putting first the child's long-term interest will deeply repay society as well as assisting in the creation of a stable adoptive family. The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, told us how difficult that is.
I turn to intercountry adoptions, which were dealt with in great detail by the noble Baroness, Lady David. At this stage in the debate, with another 15 speakers still to come, I shall not repeat all her comments, but I thought her approach was completely right and we on these Benches support it. Some argue that intercountry adoptions are undesirable in themselves. But if we are
I hope that as a result of Committee we shall be able to go further into that part of the Bill and reassure ourselves that it is properly laid out. Surely we should at least try to ensure that all children brought into this country have the same care devoted to them? In that respect, I turn to a matter that is not, strictly speaking, adoption. The Climbie case illustrated the dangers of children brought in by parents who do not have any particular status with regard to the care offered to them by social services. In that case both parents and the child came from abroad. It became evident to many people that the child was in danger and yet, through circumstances there is no point in discussing here, the child died.
Whoever the children are and whatever the circumstances in which they are placed in this country, we must be concerned that such children are more vulnerable and their interests should be given as much support as possible.
I support all those who have spoken about the need to give children a voice and to listen to that voice. Throughout my reading of the Bill I have tried to put myself in the position of the child. My question has been, "When do I get a look in?" We are often not talking about very small children, but quite developed children, upwards of seven or eight years, who are able to express their likes and dislikes. We should trust that expression of their likes and dislikes. Other noble Lords have referred to the need not to return children to dangerous homes. Often the children themselves will try to insist on that. Their voices must be heard, preferably through the provision of an advocate, as Section 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child provides.
Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, I suppose I am very thick, but I wonder whether I am the only speaker to have found this Bill remarkably difficult to understand without constant reference to a number of previous Acts which are difficult to identify. It seems a pity that it could not, at the same time as introducing new material, have been a consolidation Bill, even if it would have taken longer to draft.
As I understand it, the purpose of this Bill is to make adoption easier and quicker, and so reduce the number of children in care, a very laudable and vital objective. There can be few worse fates for any child than to be brought up in care. Indeed, "in care" is a real misnomer, for in a "care" home there is no one who really cares for or loves that child, who is turned out at the age of 18 and left to fend for himself with no one to turn to in time of trouble or illness, nowhere to go
I have long thought that to remain even in a fairly bad home is better than to be taken into care. After all, what is the point of being removed from one source of abuse only to find oneself in another? I am afraid that only too often that is what happens. I say that having talked to children who have been in care.
I just hope that this Bill really is going to have the effect of reducing the number of children in care and increasing the number who are adopted, but I cannot help wondering. I have long understood that there were more people willing to adopt than children available for them. I think one of the greatest obstacles to adoption is the time the process takes and the hoops the prospective adopters have to go through.
Certainly safeguards are necessary and prospective adoptive parents must be carefully vetted. But this should be done with a degree of what for want of a better word I can only call tolerance. That is not always the case. Political correctness too often comes into it. People who would make perfectly adequate adoptive parents are rejected because they smoke, because their houses are too tidy or too untidy, because, having been through every known medical process in an attempt to have a baby of their own, they are considered too old, because they propose to go back to work and employ a nanny; and for a host of other frivolous reasons, some of which were mentioned by the noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Seccombe, and by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever.
The Government and the social services responsible need to remember what is the alternative for such children. I should like to see some common sense brought into this area if it is possible. But unfortunately common sense is not the kind of thing which can be written into a Bill. Still, I would like carefully to scrutinise any regulations made on this matter.
Now I turn to Clause 48. A "couple" can mean a couple who are not legally married. I think we are now on dangerous ground because, easy as divorce has now been made, it is still more difficult to part from someone to whom one is legally married than from someone with whom one is merely cohabiting. Evidence shows that a legally married couple are more likely to stay together long enough to care for a child until he or she is grown up than are a cohabiting couple. Furthermore, I would suggest that if a cohabiting couple really mean to stick together, they might consider legalising their union in order to be able to adopt.
There are a number of cohabiting couplesmostly couples where one is a person of some substancewho will not marry because under the present divorce laws a large part of their assets could be claimed by a partner in a divorce settlement. The Act which made that possible was a real gold-digger's charter and has a lot to answer for.
Then there is the question of homosexual couples, whose track record as regards permanence is, I am afraid, worse still. All in all, I suspect that the number of adoptions will not be greatly affected by confining the right to adopt
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