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Baroness Andrews moved Amendment No. 21:

"( ) An adoption agency may only place a child for adoption with prospective adopters if the agency is satisfied that the child ought to be placed for adoption."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in Grand Committee we debated a similar amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones—Amendment No. 51. He intended to provide that an agency could place a child for adoption only where it was satisfied that the child ought to be so placed. His intention was a mixture of probing and principle: to establish what decision-making process we intended should lead up to the placement of a child by the adoption agency, given the importance of the matter.

His suggestion was an admirable one that would improve the Bill's drafting and we have tabled this amendment as a result. Its intention is to make explicit in the Bill what is currently implicit and what we always intended to be the position as set out in agency regulations: that an adoption agency may place a child for adoption only where it is satisfied that the child ought to be so placed. In other words, there must be a conscious and careful decision-making process, focusing on the needs of the child, before a child can be placed for adoption. I think it is sufficient to have say that we commend the amendment, given that the process will be laid out in regulations. I beg to move.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her words. The amendment is wholly satisfactory; it makes explicit what the Bill's draftsmen perhaps thought was previously implicit. It is a great addition to the Bill and will be welcomed by the agencies themselves.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 22 and 23 not moved.]

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 24:

    After Clause 20, insert the following new clause—

(1) Subject to section 52(3), where an adoption agency is satisfied that each parent or guardian of a child has consented to the child being placed for adoption at birth, the adoption agency must place that child as soon as is reasonably practicable with prospective adopters, subject to the rights of the birth parents to withdraw their consent, or alter the arrangements, in accordance with conditions which shall be specified in regulations.
(2) Where, upon application by a local authority, the court is satisfied, on the grounds set out in subsection (3), that the consent of a parent or guardian should be dispensed with, it may authorise the placing of the child with prospective adopters without first making a placement order, provided that the local authority shall apply for a placement order as soon as is reasonably practicable thereafter.
(3) The grounds referred to in subsection (2) are that—
(a) the parent or guardian cannot be found or is incapable of giving consent; or
(b) the child is otherwise likely to suffer significant harm.
(4) Subsections (2) and (3) apply only to children under the age of three months.
(5) A child who, under this section, is placed for adoption with prospective adopters by a local authority is looked after by the authority."

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The noble Earl said: My Lords, the amendment returns us to an issue that I raised in Grand Committee: my concern about baby adoptions. In times gone by, a large number of babies were adopted, but during the past 30 years that number has dwindled. Nowadays, there are about 200 baby adoptions a year from the care system. The reasons for the decline are not hard to identify: more efficient contraception, legalised abortion and, of course, many single mothers keeping their babies. However, that has meant that if you are a mother to be or new mother looking for information and expert advice on the possibility of having your baby adopted, that is often difficult to find. The expertise is fragmented.

However, that is not the whole story, because there is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here. Women who want to explore the possibility of adoption find that they cannot do so, with the result that fewer babies are available for adoption, which in turn ensures that baby adoption services are cut back still further. One manifestation of that is that there are now no mother and baby homes in the south-east of England. I am worried about that. The obvious answer is to concentrate expertise and resources for baby adoption in a few independent, specialist adoption agencies and to have a national support service for women who want to consider adoption of their babies. The aim of such specialist agencies would be to take a holistic approach and to provide mothers and prospective adopters with a complete service.

That is the ideal. I hope that the Minister will take that concept away to consider it. But in the meantime, we ought at least to consider ways of improving the life chances of those very young children who, for whatever reason, do not stay with their mothers. The key failing of our current system is that it allows babies and very young children to be shunted from pillar to post—from one foster family to another—before eventually, if they are lucky, being adopted. One study found that some infants underwent four or more moves that were not at the behest of the fosterers.

If our adoption services were really efficient and effective, they would not countenance such a thing. They would ensure that babes relinquished or abandoned by their mothers or taken indefinitely into care were placed as quickly as possible with a set of prospective adopters. One case brought to my attention involved a mother with a serious drink and drugs problem that made it impossible for her to care for her children. She had had three babies by different fathers, all of whom spent months in care before being placed for adoption. With a little forward planning during pregnancies, adoptive parents could be identified and approved so that vulnerable babies such as those were placed without delay after being born.

That is what the amendment is designed to facilitate. In Grand Committee, the noble Baroness gave me a most thoughtful and sympathetic answer, for which I was grateful. She reassured me that in broad terms the Government were of the same mind as me on the issue of baby adoptions. I was glad to hear that. She pointed in particular to Clause 18(1), which allows adoption

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agencies to place a child for adoption without the formal consent given under Clause 19, provided that the parents agree.

I was, however, left with two main concerns. First, there is nothing in the Bill that specifically flags up the small-scale but important issue of baby adoptions and the need for a fast-track procedure to be put in place as the norm. The pillar-to-post syndrome that I mentioned is not addressed in the Bill. That criticism applies as much to cases in which there is parental consent as to those in which there is not. There must be an explicit signal in the Bill that points up best practice for baby adoptions. That is what the amendment would do.

I am aware of the issue of consent. Even if a mother agrees to have her baby placed for adoption, the Bill does not bind her to that agreement, if it is given less than six weeks after the child's birth. That is as it should be. However, the existence of that provision should not be an excuse for forgetting the long-term welfare of the baby. A proper adoption plan for the baby, made in good time to ensure that it is placed with prospective adopters soon after birth, is the right way to proceed.

If there is no consent, the situation is different. I hope that such a situation will be rare. My amendment suggests that, if the parent of a child cannot be found or is mentally incapable or if a court determines that the child is at risk of significant harm if he or she is not removed from the parent, the local authority should be permitted to place the child with prospective adopters, before obtaining a placement order.

The Minister suggested to me that such a provision was unnecessary because, if a child were at risk, the local authority could apply for emergency protection orders or interim care orders. That is, of course, so. However, what she said failed, once again, to address the need to send an explicit signal to the adoption services. As far as possible, they should aim to send such babies to prospective adopters who, all being well, will become their new parents. At all costs, we must try to spare babies frequent changes of foster placement; it does dreadful damage.

I would like the Minister to comment on some remarks that she made in Grand Committee, when responding to me about training. What worries me is the lack of expertise and the lack of empathy among professionals who are the first point of contact for mothers seeking help and advice about possible adoption of their babies. There will never be large numbers of such women, but those who come forward must be treated with sensitivity and a positive, supportive attitude in their decision making, during the pregnancy and before and after the adoption process. I should be grateful if the Minister would elaborate on her comments of 2nd July, when she said:

    "As to in-depth counselling and so on, we will be able to consult with the agencies on the nature of those consultations".—[Official Report, 2/7/02; col. CWH 150.]

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The Minister also said:

    "The draft practice guidance to support the National Adoption Standards encourages as much counselling and support as possible to be given to the parent before the birth...It will ensure that the mother will know all the options and will not feel that she is being pushed into a corner where there is only one choice".—[Official Report, 2/7/02; col. CWH 149.]

The last thing that any of us wants is for birth parents to feel pressurised into relinquishing their babies. However, I am worried about the training, expertise and time available to social workers and other health professionals for the counselling and support work that the Minister mentioned. How realistic is it? I have a picture of baby adoption being given cursory consideration—if any—even when the birth mother does not feel able to look after the child herself and seeks information about adoption as a realistic option. Without the kind of concentrated, specialist service to which I referred, I cannot see how counselling and support services will be there for the women who need and want them. How do the Government intend to make them a reality? I beg to move.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I shall intervene briefly, as I had not picked up this important amendment. However, I must emphasise the extent to which the first 33 months after conception are critical to the development of the child's brain. I am sure that your Lordships are aware of that. There has been a great deal of new research in the past two or three years on that issue. Every day in the life of a little child is precious, as it bonds with someone who loves it permanently, gives it the support and confidence that it needs and teaches it to communicate. If the suggestion that the noble Earl, Lord Howe, made helps us to avoid delays of even a few weeks, we should accept it.

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