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Mr. Milburn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. As he said, some very difficult balances must be struck. Anybody who thinks that there are simple solutions has got it remarkably wrong.

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On social workers and social work training, we need two things. First, we need more staff. We are trying to tackle the current shortage of appropriately trained staff, not least by giving those who are already working in the social care world the opportunity to train in order to obtain a social work qualification. The £41 million that we have made available for the next three years specifically for that purpose will help us in achieving it. Secondly, we must ensure that the training is more appropriate. The White Paper and, previously, the PIU report, concluded that the training that is currently given and the product that we get are not appropriate. That must change. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman spoke about cultural changes. That is the correct term; some big cultural changes must be made, and they will take time to take effect.

Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West): As somebody who worked in adoption some years ago, I wholeheartedly welcome the review, which is long overdue. Everybody in the profession realises that it is about time that the fundamental changes that are proposed were made.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the quality of the vetting of adoptive parents is given a thorough overhaul? That should be done not only to remove some of the false barriers that good adoptive parents face with regard to age and all the rest of it, but to prevent the devastation that can affect some children, who, having spent some years in care, believe themselves to be going into a loving home, only to find that they have entered an abusive one. That has happened most often because the social workers have not kept their eye on the ball or managed to find the signals of abuse. Nothing could be more devastating for a child. Will my right hon. Friend reassure hon. Members that he will keep that at the forefront of his mind when the adoption process is speeded up?

Mr. Milburn: I can certainly give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance that there will be no compromise on children's safety or children's protection. Two important points should be made. As she is aware, the Criminal Records Bureau will come on line next summer, and that will be a great help in pooling our knowledge about abuse and abusers. Voluntary adoption agencies and local authorities will be allowed direct access to that bureau, which will be helpful not only in finding information, but in finding it more quickly.

Assessment is crucial in ensuring that the child's safety and well-being are taken fully into account and that we achieve the right result for both the prospective parents and the child. As part of the White Paper proposals, we shall review how the assessment criteria are used. That review will begin next year, and will probably take some time to take effect, but I believe that the end product will be a better and more rigorous set of assessment criteria that will achieve the right result for more children and more prospective parents.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Does the Secretary of State agree that probably the biggest cheer that he received for his excellent statement was for the passage in which he condemned blanket bans resulting from a form of reverse racialism that holds that loving, white, potential adoptive parents should not be allowed to adopt black children? Can he throw some light on the puzzlement that hon. Members on both sides of the House

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feel about how such attitudes ever came to be prevalent? Can he reassure us that the sort of people who held such disgraceful attitudes will not be in a position to inject more poison into the system? I conclude as I began: I congratulate him on an excellent statement.

Mr. Milburn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his warm words.

We must ensure that the child's safety, well-being and interests are at the centre of everything that we do. That is what counts: end of story, bottom line. The figures are appalling. One child in five with an adoption plan is from a black or minority ethnic background. Black children wait, on average, five months longer for placement than white children. Kids themselves lose out as a result of such nonsense. It is right that local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies alike take due note of the figures and of the clear guidance that my Department has issued: first, that the heritage of a child should of course be fully taken into account in making the assessment and the placement and, secondly, that there should be no racial barriers to ensuring that a child receives the loving, supportive and permanent family that he or she needs.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): I, too, am a proud parent, with my wife Rosemary, of two grown-up adopted sons, Damien and Luke, who bring great joy. It is great that adoption is possible, but it should only ever be secondary to the possibility of children remaining with their birth parents.

I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend say that a definite, permanent solution will be found after six months, which is good. However, will every effort be made in those six months to give the right support to natural, or birth, parents to establish whether there is any possibility of the children remaining with them? One often hears complaints against social services, usually relating to lack of resources, that little effort is made in that period and that matters drift. Birth parents feel aggrieved, upset and distressed that they were perhaps not given the support that they needed to find out whether they could make it. Although I agree that there comes a point--perhaps in six months--when a decision must be made, it is important that birth parents are given every opportunity.

Mr. Milburn: I agree. As we know from current practice, about half of all children who end up in local authority care are back with their birth families within two months. As my hon. Friend knows, under the Children Act 1989, social services departments' primary requirement is to ensure on-going contact and, if possible, re-placement with the birth family. When appropriate, that must be the right action to take. In addition, as he said, we must set a time limit that is fair for the child. Although six months might not sound long to us, it is a substantial proportion of the life of a child aged two, three, four or five. The truth is that the current system is far too slow and cumbersome, and it does not deliver the goods for the birth family, for the potential adoptive family and, most important of all, for the child.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): I welcome the Secretary of State's statement that adoption should be the first resort rather than the last. Will he extend that principle to the advice given by the statutory agencies to

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people who are considering having an abortion? At the moment, there is a dearth of advice about the alternative to an abortion: that is, giving birth and giving the child for adoption. Does he think that many more children would be born rather than aborted if the system enabled the birth mother to identify prospective adoptive parents in advance, and to have a say in the decision on which family should be given the child on adoption?

That principle operates in the United States. I have a relative who has adopted two children at birth in the US having discussed adoption with the mother beforehand. Surely that system should be applied in this country. Unlike those on the "Today" programme, I have not seen the White Paper, but I hope that it contains such a proposal.

Mr. Milburn: If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the "Today" programme team has seen the White Paper, he has another think coming. I shall let him into a little secret: I did not get the White Paper back from the printers until 10 o'clock, and the "Today" programme goes off the air at 8.59, but maybe he is right and I am wrong.

On the issue that the hon. Gentleman has just raised, what counts is choice. He does not have the right to make the choice for others any more than I do. It is the woman's right to make the choice, and she should be free to do so.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Today's statement will be excellent news for my constituents who have adopted children recently or are going through the difficult process right now and have lobbied me about equal rights with birth parents, especially on adoption allowances and paid leave. Those announcements will be very welcome to my constituents. When all the excellent proposals are put in place, will future adoptive parents be on an equal footing with natural parents in terms of paid leave, allowances and benefits?

Mr. Milburn: My hon. Friend is aware that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, when he announced his Green Paper proposals on parental and other leave, said that we will consult on precisely the issue that he has just raised. We are doing so, and there is undoubtedly a very strong case for that in many people's minds. That consultation is taking place, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will take part in it.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): I welcome the statement. Clearly, a child is far happier with a loving mother and father than in an institution. Does the Secretary of State intend to facilitate or allow adoption by same-sex couples?


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