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Those of us who have worked professionally with the social services and have experience of the adoption process wholeheartedly welcome the announcement. We often say that children are the most vulnerable members of our society, but looked-after children are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. Therefore, as the Secretary of State said, it is extremely important that they are given the chance to experience a stable and loving environment out of what is too often a failure of the care environment.
I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will strongly welcome many of the proposals. It would be outwith the spirit of the season if I did not congratulate the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) on his hard work. It happens in politics that the boss gets to steal the glory much of the time, but I am sure that the House will want to pay tribute to his contribution.
There is a general feeling among those involved in the adoption process that far too little importance is given to the child at the centre of the adoption, and far too much to the bureaucracy, the system and other people
I welcome the concept of the national register, especially if, as I hope, I am correct in assuming that national objective criteria will set out the qualifications for being an adoptive or fostering parent, that they will be the same throughout the whole United Kingdom, and that they will form the basis of any appeal that might arise. Standardisation is one of the most important factors in encouraging parents to come forward. Currently, because standards are so varied throughout the country, people fear that they will be subject to local prejudice and other factors, so many are dissuaded from coming forward to give children the chance of a stable home. Only this week, we had brought to our attention the case of a couple who, because they had applied for IVF, were told that they were unsuitable to adopt. That is a disgrace and something that the whole House would strongly deprecate.
I welcome the concept of permanence, as set out by the Secretary of State. As he knows, during discussions on the Care Standards Bill we urged that provision be made to ensure that, after a period in care, children would automatically go forward for adoption. Today, the right hon. Gentleman has set out a constructive version of that theme, which we welcome, but will he consider making another provision for which we asked when we considered that Bill? Will he provide access to some mechanism to ensure that children maintain contact with groups outside the care environment before they start out on the process of adoption? As the right hon. Gentleman says, the adoption process is difficult and time-consuming for the children involved; if they were enabled to maintain a link with a family, a church group, a charity, or some outside influence that could give them a cultural experience broader than the one that they find in the care environment, that would be a positive step forward, which we would welcome.
I think that the Secretary of State accidentally missed out one element when he talked about the monitoring of performance. He mentioned the social services inspectorate and the Audit Commission, but am I not correct to assume that the National Care Standards Commission will be involved in monitoring adoption standards? That provision already exists in legislation, but I think that the right hon. Gentleman accidentally omitted to mention it. In addition, when he says that, if a council persistently fails to deliver, he will use his intervention powers to transfer its adoption services to a different agency, what sort of agency does he have in mind? Is he talking about the privatisation of adoption services? If so, we would not object.
I have three short and specific points. First, the Secretary of State mentioned the courts. How long does the average adoption process take in the courts? His statement was not clear about that element in delays, but it makes a difference to our approach to reform. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman did not mention the culture and training of social workers. Given that they are the ones who will have to execute any big change in the process, any improvement in that respect would be most welcome.
The Secretary of State is right to say that children need action. We do not need to wait another year. We shall support the legislation if is introduced on the basis that the right hon. Gentleman has set out today, so let the Government put their legislation where their mouth is and get on with it. That is the best Christmas present that they could give to children in care.
Mr. Milburn: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his warm support for the measures that I have announced. I think that overwhelmingly they will command support throughout the House. I very much hope that they will.
I join the hon. Gentleman--I did not have the opportunity to do this earlier--in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister of State and other members of the ministerial team. My hon. Friend has taken a lead on the issue and has done a first-class job. It is nice to be able to get that on the record.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that in future we must do what seems to be a simple thing, but is pretty difficult to achieve. We must examine the entire adoption process through the eyes of the child rather than through the eyes of those who are administering the process. If we can do that and produce that culture change, we shall introduce major improvements in the system, particularly in making it quicker, more accessible and more appropriate.
The register will be separate from the national objective criteria that we are setting. I hope that the register will be up and running--invitations will be issued for tenders today--by about July next year. The hon. Gentleman is right about national standards. They will be enforced throughout the country, and that is the right thing to do. As a point of information for the hon. Gentleman and the House, a statutory code of practice will accompany the standards and the proposed legislation. I will be ensuring through section 7 statutory guidance that local authorities enforce the standards that we are setting at national level to ensure that children and potential adoptive parents throughout the country get a fairer deal than hitherto.
The hon. Gentleman said that children in care should be able to maintain contact with those outside the care system. That is absolutely right. As he is aware, the Children Act 1989 places a primary requirement on social services to provide such contact, especially in relation to a child's extended family. That should be the first point of contact that any child in care is given by the social services authority.
The hon. Gentleman is right about the National Care Standards Commission. It will have an important role when it comes on line in 2002, both in regulating adoption agencies and inspecting local social services departments and their adoption functions.
There are two possible routes for the transfer of adoption services from a local authority. The first is transfer to another local authority. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, many local authorities are voluntarily entering into consortiums arrangements with others. That provides a larger pool of children, a larger pool of parents and a larger pool of expertise. It is a good thing, and we want to see more of it. Secondly, it will be possible to transfer adoption services to a voluntary adoption agency where local authority services are failing. Many agencies do an extremely good job and we want to see their role enhanced.
At present, we do not have information about the time that is taken in the courts. We are seeking to elicit that information as an element in speeding up the court process. There are two separate delays. One is within social services departments and the second is when the case gets into a court, where further delays compound the problem for both the child and the adoptive parents. We shall be examining these matters closely.
The hon. Gentleman is right when he says that we need to make some major changes to social work culture and training. In the past few months, I have announced that an extra £41 million is going into social work training to ensure that we have more qualified social workers who are appropriately trained.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point about primary legislation. I repeat for the benefit of the House what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said and the commitment that he has given. We shall be introducing legislation next year. The hon. Gentleman asked about the private Member's Bill of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). I do not know as yet what it contains, but adoption legislation to carry forward our radical programme of reform will need a large piece of legislation--larger than would normally be possible through a private Member's Bill. Furthermore, the two measures that the hon. Lady has said will be included in her Bill--a national adoption register and consistent national eligibility criteria--do not require primary legislation. We shall be getting on with those things now.