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Sir Nicholas Lyell: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. I have suggested that the modification might be achieved through secondary legislation, but the method and timing would be a matter for the Government of the day. The fact is that our purpose could be achieved legislatively without difficulty.
Having dealt with the framework, I turn to the substance of the matter and the argument in favour of establishing a national register. The whole House would agree that to set out to be approved as a prospective adoptive parent is a daunting pilgrimage. Two features of adoption stick out starkly. The demand for children to adopt where those children are very young, or not so young but have been taken into care, substantially exceeds the supply of children to be adopted. By contrast, although, happily, there is a significant pool of parents who are willing to adopt children from care--many are parents who have fostered children, like my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) has done, and are willing to move on to adoption--that pool could valuably be increased. A national adoption register would provide a good method of encouraging people to consider adopting from children in care.
Let us not exaggerate the number of children in care who are available to be adopted. The consultation document shows that there were some 55,300 children in care in 1998, but obviously by no means all of those would be candidates for adoption--the figure would probably be 1,000 or 2,000. I might be being unduly pessimistic, but I think that about 2,000 children from that pool of 55,000 have been adopted over the years. Perhaps the Minister can tell us over how many years how many children have been adopted from the pool of children in care.
Another interesting fact in the consultative report is that the United States is a little bit ahead of us in this area. Britain can be proud of being second in the world in the proportion of children adopted from the pool of children in care. We achieve some 4 per cent. The United States achieves some 7 per cent.--about 1,500 children. I am not sure if it is 1,500 children a year or at any one time--no doubt the Minister will elucidate--but it is getting on for double the number of children.
Also striking is the average age of children who are adopted in the United States. In Britain, the average age is one year and two months. In the United States--this is highly significant for children in care--the mean age is six years and nine months. In other words, there are pools of parents in the United States who are willing to take on the tremendously important, and in a way significantly more difficult, role of adopting such children.
The process of encouraging that must be taken gently over a number of years, but the national register will provide a sensible way of getting started on that desirable route. It will provide parents who may hitherto have been daunted with an opportunity to talk through the problems with professionals. The fact that it is done with professionals on a national basis, and in circumstances where an immediate pressing desire for adoption is rather less acute than in some other cases, will enable it to be done well. There will be an opportunity for both the potential parents and the authorities to reflect, for the potential parents to be assessed, for a conclusion to be reached, and, hopefully, for a significant number to be included in the register.
Those who are included in the register will be able to find a suitable child to adopt whom they may well have fostered on an interim basis in the meantime, providing a better life for a small but none the less significant proportion of those 55,000 children who are in care. Of course, one hopes that a significant proportion of those children will go back to their own parents in due course, but there are many who do not have that opportunity. The national register will enable many hundreds, perhaps a few thousand, to find a happier home, and that is something on which all hon. Members will agree.
Mr. Hutton: I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. On the occasions when we can agree on a sensible way forward, we should not be shy in saying so, and the national adoption register commands a substantial measure of support in the House as a sensible way in which to proceed. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), whom I thank for his kind comments about me, displayed the mastery of a brief which we lawyers like to display.
I shall try to confine my remarks to the substance of the new clause, which calls for the establishment of a national adoption register under the auspices of the National Care Standards Commission. I shall explain to the House the Government's commitment to establishing a national adoption register, as several hon. Members have asked me to do in detail. I shall also explain why new clause 6 is probably not the most sensible way to go about it.
Having undertaken the review and received the recommendations of the PIU, which prepared the report, the Government decided to take a number of steps. We are committed to the establishment of a national adoption register for England and Wales. Let me make it clear to Opposition Members who raised the issue that, as stated in the PIU report, we intend to tender for the operation of the national adoption register. Later this year, we will invite applications to operate the register. We hope to get the register up and running some time next year.
The PIU report raises the question whether we need any legislative underpinning for the national adoption register. We are consulting on that. If legislation is required to establish the register, we will include those proposals in the legislation that we plan for next year. However, it is desirable that we should go ahead now with the establishment of a national adoption register, and that is what we intend to do.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) asked how we would do that. We have an opportunity to use the powers in section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 to issue statutory guidance to local authorities, if that is the mechanism for making sure that the register remains an accurate register of children and approved prospective adopters.
What is wrong with new clause 6? Why should we not incorporate it in the Bill? There are three or four problems with the new clause. First, it deals only with local authority approved adoptive parents. It is not clear how the register proposed by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) would work in relation to adopters approved by voluntary adoption agencies. Many hon. Members expressed their support in principle for the work that VAAs do. The new clause would exclude adoptive parents who had been approved by VAAs. That is not a sensible way forward.
Secondly, and more problematically, the new clause does not provide for the inclusion of children available for adoption. If the purpose of the register is to match prospective adoptive parents with children, the hon. Lady's solution clearly will not achieve that, because there is no provision in the new clause for children to be recorded on the database that she wants the National Care Standards Commission to operate.
If those problems were not sufficient to persuade the House not to support the new clause, the other difficulty--which is the same difficulty that we encountered when the hon. Lady moved a similar new clause in the Standing
Given the support that I have heard tonight for such a register, I do not believe that many hon. Members, having studied the proposals moved by the hon. Lady, would want us to hang around for that length of time before we establish the register. We should get on and do it as soon as possible. That is what we shall do. We believe that we can do that and operate the register using the powers that we have. It is essentially an administrative arrangement. If we need to underpin it with primary legislation, we will do so next year. Despite the positive and welcome comments in support of the register that we heard tonight--
Mr. Hutton: I am not giving way. It is probably best that the House gives its blessing to the Government's proposals and that we get on with establishing the register. If we need to return to the matter in primary legislation, we will do that next year.
Mrs. Spelman: When we prepared the new clause, the Government had not made their proposals. We have learned a great deal more since then. We accept what the Minister says about the Government introducing legislation early in the next Session. That is entirely in the spirit of consensus in which the debate on the new clause has been conducted. If the Government introduce the legislation early in the legislative programme next year, we will certainly support it--[Interruption.] I hope that the Minister is listening to the kind offer that I am making--as we are all agreed that we want to establish a national adoption register. When we make nice offers, it is important that they should be received.
The point about legislative underpinning is an important one. I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) for making it. I should hate it if we looked back in a year's time to realise that we had missed an opportunity. We accept that section 7 of the Local Government Bill may provide powers to make local authorities make the changes happen.
Having made those points, and given that we accept the Minister's points about inadequacies in our drafting--we do not have the resources at our disposal that the Government have--we will withdraw the new clause and look forward to seeing a legislative proposal early in the next session. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.