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We are most grateful that the new clause was included in the revised selection list. It provides us with an ideal opportunity to return to unfinished business that we began in Committee. Since then, important developments have taken place on adoption. The debate will allow us to contrast and compare the aims of our new clause and the Government's proposals. We could not engage in such a debate in Committee, although the Minister gave us heavy hints as to the imminent announcement of a national register.
The new clause provides for an adoption register of parents qualified to adopt, to be held by the National Care Standards Commission, according to nationally established criteria set by the Secretary of State. The provisions on adoption and fostering in this wide-ranging Bill offer us an opportunity to help to amend the law on adoption.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House probably agree that some amendment of the law is necessary. At present, the adoption process is too slow. Families need more support both during the adoption process and in the longer term. Help is needed when an adopted child enters a family, but difficulties can arise much later. Children adopted at the age of five or six might still manifest problems as they enter the troubled teenage years. That period is difficult enough, but it is even harder for young people who have to cope with the disruption to their life of being adopted when they were younger.
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem is getting adopted in the first place? Children who need to be adopted are available only to potential adoptive parents in a particular county or region. Will the provision of a national adoption register under the new clause ensure matching, throughout England and Wales, of parents who want to adopt and children who are available for adoption?
Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend exactly understands one of the main aims of the new clause. It would remove the lottery aspect of the process--in which the family wanting to adopt is constrained by the immediate geographical region and by the variation in eligibility criteria under different local authorities. The new clause would do away with that. At present, adoption is a postcode lottery.
We have a poor track record because so many children are in care--54,000. On average, it takes four years for a child to be adopted. It is obviously detrimental for children who have already been damaged by being parted from their birth family to languish in care. Often, they move between various foster parents before they find security and stability in an adoptive family.
The new clause would impress on local authorities the urgent need to draw up plans for the children in their care. Contributing to the national register would increase opportunities for matching, which is restricted by geographical constraints on local authorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) pointed out, the creation of the national register would provide much better opportunities to obtain a good match.
Mr. Dawson: Does the hon. Lady accept that the views that she has expressed are accepted by hon. Members on both sides of the House? In fact, the proposal for a national register for adoption was included in the adoption consultation paper, which was published last week. As legislation is not required to do what she wants to do, is the new clause necessary? Can we not just accept that the
Mrs. Spelman: If consultation papers had such a powerful effect, many more of the Government's good intentions might have had some force in law. It is because we doubt that the Government have enough time to enact a provision that has power and effect that we have sought more urgently to use a Bill that is going through the House to implement the measures for a national register on which we all agree.
There are subtle differences between the Government's proposals in the consultation document for changing the process for adoption and our proposals, even though our aims are the same. It is worth while promoting the new clause to explain those differences.
We believe that the Government's proposal for how and where the register should be held suggests that there will be a lack of independence. The National Care Standards Commission is independent and an ideal body to hold such a national register. We are not satisfied that a register held by some local authorities, which simply draw together their data, is sufficiently independent--and independence will be important.
In the Government's document on adoption, the Prime Minister suggested that a new taskforce should be set up and that it should be called the new adoption and permanency taskforce. However, as I said to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), how much power and force does a consultative document have? We have also grown sceptical about the power and force of taskforces; they are not always all that they are cracked up to be.
We have a chance with this Bill to make progress and to proceed to implement the ideas that we have in common. I would describe our new clause as a bird in the hand, and a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The new clause offers us an opportunity here and now to make the changes.
Two other aspects of the new clause need to be assessed against the Prime Minister's proposals for adoption. Our subsection (4) would recognise that the parents who have already gone through the mill and qualified as adoptive parents on the existing criteria and within the past five years should not have to go through the whole rigmarole again. That is important. People with friends who have had to go through the adoption process know that it is traumatic. It is long drawn out and involves a series of personal and far-reaching interviews. I do not dispute the importance of the interviews, but everyone will agree that it would be hard on people if they had to go through that process all over again.
Dr. Brand: I will be interested to know whether the commission's role under the new clause would purely be to hold a register. Would it also have a role in determining the quality of vetting that took place before prospective adopters could go on to the register?
Mrs. Spelman: The hon. Gentleman's intervention is helpful. He served on the Standing Committee, so he will recall that part of the Bill is devoted to the question of raising the status of social work and the General Social Care Council. As much of what he described as the vetting procedure will be carried out by qualified social care workers, the Bill will have the advantage of bringing about a rise in the status of that profession.
The hon. Gentleman asked specifically how we envisaged the role of the commission. We envisage principally that it would hold the national register, which would draw together all the adoptive parents registered with local authorities throughout Britain. However, if the vetting procedure is to work and be fair for adoptive parents and children, the cornerstone would be the national criteria set by the Secretary of State. Together, those two elements would make the vetting procedure fairer than the present system. The procedure would be carried out by qualified social workers, which would improve the position.
Another important difference between the proposal in our new clause and the consultative proposals in the adoption document concerns the appeals procedure. Proposed subsection (5) of the new clause would create a proper appeals procedure involving the independence of the commission. The Prime Minister's review of proposals to introduce an appeals mechanism for potential adopters is rather unclear about that. We feel strongly that the appeals procedure needs to involve an independent body. Page 5 of the Government document states:
Mrs. Spelman: I do not dispute that it is first and foremost for the children. However, quite a few parents feel that, at the moment, the system does not deal with them altogether fairly, especially when they compare the grounds on which they were rejected by their local authority with the grounds on which their friends may have been accepted in another local authority. That has fundamentally undermined the confidence of potential adopters in an appeals procedure which is limited in all local authorities. There is therefore an important distinction to be made between the Government's proposals and what we would like to achieve in the new clause. I am bound to say that I believe that our proposal is better and would have more support from adoptive parents.
It is important to grasp the nettle, as the Bill creates the opportunity to do something about adoption law. There is no question but that the time is ripe for reform. It is no secret that the previous Government had a draft adoption Bill ready in the last parliamentary Session, but ran out
As the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre says, most important are the children. Once displaced from their birth parents, rather like war children, what they most need is security and permanence; they do not need to be moved from pillar to post in the care system. A Department of Health local authority circular, reference No. LAC(98)20, states:
The poor rate of adoption from the care sector reflects the poor level of therapeutic help available to displaced children. By involving the NCSC in a fresh approach to national adoption law, the new clause would create the opportunity to tackle the lack of such care provided during the process, both before and after adoption is complete. There is no doubt that a child who comes into care has already experienced some damage for which therapeutic help is needed; as the child moves into a transitional state--perhaps a foster home--more help may be required; and, as the child enters the adoptive family, yet more help will be needed.
However, there are other groups in the critical triangle who also need such help. Often, the complaint is made that the adopting family receives inadequate support once a child has been adopted. The extremely high failure rate--it is estimated that 20 per cent. of all adoptions break down--must be attributed in part to the lack of therapeutic help provided to the child and the adopting family.