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Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): Will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent statement to be made by the Secretary of State for Health, following the disturbing news from the authorities at Derriford hospital in Plymouth, which serves my constituency, that they contemplate requiring an additional consent form from patients about to undergo surgery so as to absolve the hospital of responsibility and blame for any problems that might arise due to inadequate facilities or hygiene? Is not that disturbing news that might have implications throughout the country?

Mrs. Beckett: The hon. Gentleman perfectly legitimately makes what he clearly feels is an important constituency point. I am not familiar with the details, as he will anticipate. Although I cannot undertake to ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement on the matter, he is in the Chamber and will have heard the hon. Gentleman's remarks. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will make further inquiries and, should they confirm the concern he has just expressed, he may find an opportunity to raise the matter on 10 January when we debate the Second Reading of the Health and Social Care Bill.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on the planning system? In two villages in my constituency, large former mental institutions are currently being redeveloped--mainly for housing. One is in Calderstones, near Whalley, and the other is in Whittingham. If both developments take place, they will alter dramatically the character of the nearby villages; in Whittingham, 950 houses are being considered.

The Government have introduced PPG3; we want to test how effective that is in ensuring that residents and local and parish councils can defend the interests of villages against wholesale development. If the guidelines are not effective, perhaps further guidelines will be necessary to protect those villages. The best Christmas and new year present that we could receive from the Government would be for them to ensure that the PPGs are effectively tightened to give better protection to local people against the influx of extra housing.

Mrs. Beckett: Of course, I am aware of such developments--they take place in many constituencies,

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including mine, and sometimes cause concern. From what he says, the matter would appear to be rather more for the local authority than for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. However, if on mature consideration, the hon. Gentleman comes to the view that it raises issues about the nature of planning guidance, although I cannot promise him a debate I remind him that there will be questions to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on 16 January.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): Can the Leader of the House promise us a statement during the first week after the break on the continuing crisis of confidence in the sub-post office network? We were told that there was to be an announcement about the universal bank before Christmas--that does not seem to have occurred. The outcome of the lottery decision is unlikely to benefit the Post Office. The bottom has fallen out of the sub-post office market. What are the Government going to do about that? Does not this crisis demand a statement during the first week back?

Mrs. Beckett: Discussions are continuing about how best we can safeguard the rural post office network. The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the matter as one of considerable difficulty--not least, of course, because of the way in which the Conservative Government, whom he supported, bled the Post Office white over so many years, ensuring that it had no resources for investment, which had a bad effect on the whole network. The Labour Government will certainly do their best to protect and to save the network. However, although the matter is of concern and Ministers continue to work with the relevant authorities to do what we can to assist, the hon. Gentleman says nothing that suggests to me the need for an urgent statement in the new year.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I want to raise a matter that there was no chance to highlight at Agriculture questions. Given that the pig industry has been losing up to £4 million a week and that, over the past two years alone, 25,000 people have left the sector altogether, does the right hon. Lady agree that it is important to have a statement from the Government, as a matter of urgency, to confirm that they intend to review the proposed operation of the integrated pollution prevention controls and to confirm that they will not be applied in a way that militates against the British sector relative to our continental counterparts? Finally, will the right hon. Lady take it from me that, if such a statement is forthcoming, it will be received by my constituent, Mr. James King of Cowley farm, Preston Bissett in Buckingham, as an extremely welcome wedding present?

Mrs. Beckett: I am sure that that is a worthwhile reason for the Government to take such a major step. As the hon. Gentleman, who is a regular attender at business questions, will recall, the matter has been raised frequently over recent months. We are conscious of the problems in the pig industry and the Government have provided special help to it.

The hon. Gentleman raises the particular issue of the IPPC. It is my recollection that the Prime Minister has been discussing the issues with the National Farmers Union. I cannot offer the hon. Gentleman time for further

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discussions or statements on that matter, but I can and will undertake to draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): May I renew my request to the Leader of the House for a statement or debate on the folly of a European army, particularly as it has now been described by a likely future assistant to President-elect Bush as a dagger pointed at the heart of NATO? While we are on the subject of President-elect Bush, does the right hon. Lady agree that the result of the US presidential election shows that to achieve an electoral victory it is not enough for a party to have had at its head a sharp-suited but shallow individual?

Mrs. Beckett: I rather think that the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question was a boomerang.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of defence and the conversations about the European rapid reaction force. I note that he moved from people in a previous American Administration to likely future assistants to the new Administration, which is a matter of concern. No doubt this Government and other European Governments will be anxious--as will the Secretary-General of NATO, Lord Robertson--to reassure the incoming American Administration about the facts of what is proposed in the European context, and that it is not in any way a risk to NATO. As for the lessons to be learned from the American election, they are many--not least that those who say that it makes no difference whether people vote have learned a sharp lesson.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Does the Leader of the House share my concern at the reported loss of 24,000 agricultural jobs per annum? Four hundred and fifty people are drifting from the land every week. Will the

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right hon. Lady arrange an early statement or debate to discuss employment and training opportunities and assess what special assistance can be given to people who have lost their jobs?

Mrs. Beckett: I am indeed aware of what the hon. Gentleman rightly identified as a drift from the land. He will know that, although I do not take it lightly, that trend has occurred over generations, not just recent years. I do understand the hon. Gentleman's concern and he knows that the Government have worked hard, and will continue to do so, with representatives of the farming community to assist with what is certainly--the Government do not seek to disguise it--a continuing and serious crisis in agriculture. We will continue to try to identify a way forward, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be part of those discussions, particularly in relation to the part of the Province that he represents.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) rose--

Mr. Speaker: Order. I note that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) is standing. I like to be generous, particularly at this time of year, but he must be able to hear what the Leader of the House has to say. I might have called the hon. Gentleman, but I cannot because he was not present to listen to the statement by the Leader of the House.

Dr. Whitehead: I was collecting information that has only just become available which was relevant to the request that I intended to make to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I was therefore unavoidably absent from the Chamber.

Mr. Speaker: I recognise the hon. Gentleman's difficulty about that, but when one is a Back Bencher, one has to try to find other ways to make a point.

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11.4 am

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Alan Milburn): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the White Paper, "Adoption: a new approach", which I am publishing today.

Every child should have the best possible start in life. As a country with one of the largest economies in the world, we should be aiming to provide opportunities for all children, whatever their backgrounds. The Government have a special responsibility to ensure that every child in our society has the opportunity to grow up in a stable and secure family. That is why we have taken action to lift more than a million children out of poverty, to raise child benefit by record levels and to increase support to families through the working families tax credit. In all, we are spending an extra £6 billion each year in real terms on financial support for children. It is also why we have taken action to strengthen safeguards for children, with new legislation, new resources and new programmes, such as the sure start and quality protects schemes. Together, those two programmes alone will provide investment of more than £1.8 billion over the next three years in services helping some of the most vulnerable children in the country.

Ultimately, stable families and strong communities provide the foundations for a fair society. Children do best when they grow up in a stable, loving family. When children cannot live with their birth parents, we have a shared responsibility to make sure that they can enjoy the loving family life that most of us take for granted.

As every hon. Member knows, the opportunity to grow up in a stable family environment has not been properly extended to looked-after children who, for one reason or another, cannot live with their birth families. It is not only the children who have lost out; society as a whole has paid a heavy price for that failure. At any one time, local councils look after 58,000 children. Seven in 10 of them leave care at 16 without a single qualification. Almost four in 10 male prisoners under 21 have been looked after at some stage in their lives; 25 per cent. of the people sleeping rough on the streets of London have been in care. That is not a failure of the child in care; it is a failure of the system of care.

Those children, perhaps above all others, need the safety, stability and loving care of a permanent new family, and they need that stability as quickly as humanly possible. That is not the case at present. Children stay in the care system far longer than they should. More than 28,000 children have been in care continuously for more than two years. Too often, despite the best intentions of all involved, they are passed from pillar to post inside that system. Nearly one in five looked-after children have three or more placements in a single year--some have six or more. For those children, the care system does not provide the stability that they need to overcome their troubled past and build a successful future. Those children need a better chance in life. They deserve a better deal.

Adoption can provide just such a new start in life for a looked-after child. Too often, adoption has been seen as a last resort when it should have been considered as a first resort. In some councils, 10 per cent. of looked-after children are adopted; in others, less than 1 per cent. are. As adoption services are run on a local basis, children and

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adoptive parents can miss the chance that adoption brings. Overall, the system, including the courts, can be slow, cumbersome and unfair. Of course, the safety of every child should be of paramount concern, but, on average, children are waiting almost a year and a half before it is decided that adoption is best for them. Even after a decision is taken that they can be adopted, they wait longer still. Overall, the average time taken to adopt a looked-after child is three years--an eternity in a child's eyes.

People who want to adopt children from the care system need a better deal as well. We are short of adoptive parents, but the system deters people from adopting; it is slow, intrusive and sometimes simply inappropriate. There have been cases, as all hon. Members know, of potential adopters who have been told that they cannot adopt simply because they are too old or too middle class. Such blanket bans can have only one effect--they fail to put the needs of children first. Families who adopt children overwhelmingly do a brilliant job for those children. It is not an easy job, because many of the children are not easy. They and their adoptive parents deserve more support. Adoption services and adoption laws are in need of reform. The Adoption Act 1976 is based on legislation that dates back to 1958, and is inconsistent with the Children Act 1989.

In February this year, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister launched a thorough review of adoption. He commissioned the performance and innovation unit in the Cabinet Office to consider the evidence and make recommendations for action. The report was published for consultation on 7 July this year. It found that there was clear scope for many more looked-after children to be adopted. The Prime Minister made it clear in July that the Government accepted some of its key recommendations. In particular, he announced that new legislation would be introduced next year.

The White Paper that I am publishing today outlines the most radical overhaul of adoption law and practice in 25 years. New legislation will seek to place children's safety, welfare, and interests at the heart of the adoption process. It will link adoption more closely with the principles of the Children Act 1989, and extend the options that courts have to secure a permanent family life for looked-after children. A new special guardianship order will be created for those children who want a more legally secure permanent family than can be delivered through foster care or residence orders, but who do not want to sever all legal ties with their birth family.

A clearer legal duty will be placed on local councils to plan for and provide comprehensive support services for adoptive families. Families who adopt children will be entitled to have their needs for support services properly assessed. They will have access to a comprehensive package of post-adoption support, including adoption allowances, in a way that is more consistent across the country. We are already consulting on introducing paid leave for adoptive parents, and for potential adopters whose application is rejected we will introduce a new right to an independent review.

Local councils and voluntary adoption agencies will need to make substantial improvements to their adoption services. Some are already doing so. Last year, the number of adoptions rose from 2,200 to 2,700, but much more needs to be done. New resources will be made available to produce better results. The Government will

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provide £66 million of investment for local authorities over the next three years to help transform adoption services for children. In exchange for this investment, I will expect to see clear improvements in performance.

In future, we expect the majority of councils to do what the minority are already successfully doing: working collaboratively with other councils and voluntary adoption agencies. Council performance on adoption will be more rigorously monitored, not least through the social services inspectorate and the Audit Commission. If a council is persistently failing to deliver, I will not hesitate to use my intervention powers to transfer its adoption services to another agency.

An adoption register for England and Wales will be established. It will match children with adoptive parents across the country when a local family cannot be found or when a child needs to move away from the local area. I am today issuing invitations to tender for the new register, with a view to its becoming operational next summer.

The courts, too, will need to improve their performance. My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has been looking carefully at the causes of delays in dealing with children's cases. The White Paper sets out how we will speed up adoption cases. In the coming year, the Lord Chancellor's Department will increase the number of judges specially trained to deal with family work, and make better use of the available expertise. It will set up pilots to evaluate the benefits of concentrating adoption work in specialist adoption courts with experienced judges and court staff. It will also work with the president of the family court division on guidance to courts on better case management and take further steps to improve the way in which the courts deal with adoption cases.

Next year, too, the new children and family court advisory and support service--CAFCASS--will be set up, bringing together services for children in one comprehensive agency, allowing them better to meet the needs of children.

However, these changes in local courts and in local councils will not, by themselves, be enough to bring about the step change in adoption services that children need. Today, therefore, I am also publishing for consultation the first ever set of national adoption standards. They will help to drive up the standards of service for children and adoptive parents in all parts of the country. The standards set challenging new targets to speed up adoption processes.

Six months after being looked after continuously, every looked-after child will have an agreed plan for permanence. That might cover efforts to rehabilitate a child with their birth family, but if adoption is the plan for permanence, suitable adoptive parents should be found within a further six months. That will be a major improvement on the current position and will almost halve the average time that it takes to find an adoptive family for a child. For foster carers who want to adopt a child, and if it is in the child's best interest for that to happen, we will go further still. Applications by foster carers who want to adopt a child in their care will be processed in just three months.

The standards will also set out how prospective adopters will be welcomed and treated in an open and fair way. There will be no blanket bans on people because of their age, health or other factors. [Hon. Members: "Hear,

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hear."] For example, it is clear that the best family for a child is one who reflect their birth heritage--we certainly need to do much more to recruit adopters from diverse ethnic backgrounds--but no child should be denied loving adoptive parents solely on the grounds that the child and the parents have different racial or cultural backgrounds. The child's interest--their safety and well-being--will be the crucial factor in determining their adoptive parents. I hope that the measures will help us to treat and support adopters better so that we can attract more people successfully to adopt more children.

It is right that we are ambitious for looked-after children and for prospective families. There is no shortage of children who are looking for a stable and loving permanent family. A 1999 report for my Department found that 2,400 children were waiting to be adopted and 1,300 adopters were waiting for children. Adoption must become a first-choice option for looked-after children who cannot return home. Therefore, the White Paper sets a new national target to deliver a minimum 40 per cent. increase in lasting adoptions by 2005, although I hope that the measures that I have outlined today will help us to achieve a 50 per cent. increase over that period. Our aim must be to give many hundreds more looked-after children the chance to live as a permanent member of a stable, secure and, above all else, loving new family.

Children get only one chance to grow up. A looked- after child should have the same life chance as any other child. They should have an opportunity to belong, to have a stake and to get on in life. For too long, too many have been denied that and have been the innocent victims of a system that has failed to meet their needs to provide a permanent and secure loving family. It is a failure that we would not tolerate for ourselves; we would certainly not tolerate it for our own children, and we should not tolerate it for other children. The reforms to adoption that I have announced will transform the life chances of hundreds, hopefully thousands, of children. They deserve no less. I commend the proposals to the House.

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