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Mr. Milburn: We have no plans to change the current law, which is clear. That law operated under the previous Government, and will continue to operate under this Government. I shall make one important point. This issue is not about the rights of any individual or any couple to have a child. It is about the rights of the child. It is the

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child's interests, the child's safety and the child's well-being that come first. With respect, neither the hon. Gentleman nor I can decide what is in the child's best interest. That is a matter for those who handle these difficult and sensitive issues, and in the end it is a matter for the courts.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): I welcome the statement. I am sorry to pop the bubble of festive consensus, but although some Conservative Members clearly felt strongly about this issue, from 1979 to 1997 nothing was done by successive Tory Governments to address it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government have done more to support family life in the past three years, whether for natural parents or adoptive parents, than any Government for many generations?

In his statement, my right hon. Friend said that a permanent placement would be sought after six months. Will he ensure that social services departments do not make unnecessary excuses for denying a child a permanent place? The problem is that there are too many children in the care system. They are damaged by their natural families, and then damaged by the system that they are put into. By the time they reach an age at which it is thought that they can go to an adoptive family, the damage has already been done.

On too many occasions, social services departments have not given enough support to adoptive parents. They have not informed adoptive parents of the background of the children--of their needs and, possibly, of the abuses that they have experienced. In such circumstances, it is important that discussion takes place--for the sake of those children, but also for the sake of those who will be adoptive siblings.

Mr. Milburn: I agree with much of what my hon. Friend has said. There are important lessons to be learned. To be fair, however, I must say that some local authorities--along with some voluntary adoption agencies--are doing a good job. We should not lose sight of that. The problem is that there are too few such organisations, which is why we must set national standards, establish a clear national adoption register and review the criteria for assessment, ensuring that they apply nationally as well as locally. Those are the things that we must do to eradicate what many would describe as one of the worst forms of the lottery of care that has been all too prevalent in the care system as a whole.

Yes: I think that, with the good will of voluntary adoption agencies, local authorities, the Government and, I hope, the House, it will be possible to bring about a fundamental transformation of the way in which the adoption system works.


Mr. Speaker: I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Act 2000

City of Newcastle upon Tyne Act 2000.

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Points of Order

11.57 am

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In a written answer given to me yesterday--it can be found at column 228W of the Official Report--the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), confirmed that a 15-person delegation from Britain and British overseas territories had attended the November triennial conference of Education Ministers in Halifax, Canada. It was led by Mr. Jack McConnell. He is not a Member of either House of this Parliament; he is, of course, a member of the Scottish Executive, and a Minister in the Scottish Parliament. I note from an earlier parliamentary answer that on at least one occasion a Scottish Minister has led a British delegation to a European Council meeting.

As the House will know, I have an interest in Commonwealth education, and have served as an education Minister with responsibility for, among other matters, international affairs. I was used to leading--I hope, successfully and amicably--multi-territorial delegations to international meetings. While I do not criticise the individuals who made up the delegation to Canada, I regret that no Ministers in the House of Commons ordered their diaries in such a way that they could attend the meeting.

More seriously still, Mr. Speaker, I invite you to consider how we can achieve the accountability to the House of persons who speak in the name of the Government. This is not simply a matter involving unelected civil servants or officials, who can speak, or are responsible, through their Ministers; it is a question of a person, purporting to speak for the United Kingdom, who holds a partial mandate in one part of that kingdom.

Education is a sensitive cultural matter. Although I have not checked, I do not think that the delegation to Canada can possibly have been led by the Education Minister of the province of Newfoundland, let alone that of, for instance, Quebec.

My substantive point is this: whoever was selected, if that person was not a Member of Parliament here, we have no possibility of questioning him here. I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to reflect on the propriety and wisdom of the situation that Ministers have created.

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. I am afraid that I cannot help him, as it is a matter for the Government as

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to who represents them at overseas conferences. However, the Government remain accountable to the House for the choice of the delegation and for the outcome of the conference as it affects United Kingdom interests. The hon. Gentleman can therefore pursue his interest in the conference by using the usual procedures of the House.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I would be grateful for your guidance on whether it is in order for Departments to refuse to supply information which is available to them by using the device of providing blocking answers to named-day written questions. I refer specifically to the announcements on type 45 destroyer procurement which were made this morning and to three named-day written questions that I had tabled for answer last Friday.

Mr. Speaker: The answers or lack of answers from Ministers are not a responsibility of the occupant of the Chair. However, I understand the hon. Gentleman's frustration. By raising his point of order, he has put the matter on the record, and I am sure that the appropriate Minister will note his concern.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You heard, as I did, the exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) and the Leader of the House about facilities of the House being used for apparently racist reasons. May I ask whether any checks are made on whether facilities of the House, such as meeting rooms, are used for purposes that could be considered to be, for example, racist? If so, can any action be taken to stop such use? Although I appreciate that meeting rooms are booked by hon. Members, I think that it is totally unacceptable that--if my hon. Friend is right--such facilities should be used to spread racist poison. Would it be at all possible for you, Mr. Speaker, to make inquiries into the matter?

Mr. Speaker: Every hon. Member booking such facilities should always be careful about how the facilities are to be used and ensure that they are used only by reputable organisations. We have domestic Committees, and I am sure that they--particularly their Chairmen--will note the comments of the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter). I dare say that they will look into the matter. Certainly if it were ever proved that such an organisation was operating in the House, I would take a very serious view on it. I hope that that is of assistance.

Mr. Winnick: I am most grateful, Mr. Speaker.

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Social Security

12.3 pm

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling): I beg to move,

This order and the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase (No. 2) Order 2000 increase pensions, provide more help for families with children and do more for people with disabilities and carers than ever before. We are able to make the increases because we are now seeing the results of our reforms to the welfare state. Because we have more people off benefit and in jobs, we are spending £4 billion less this year and £4 billion less next year on the costs of unemployment.

At the previous general election, we promised that we would cut the bills of economic and social failure, and we have. As a result of that and other action, social security spending is now under control, for the first time in three decades. Consequently, we can spend more where it is needed, giving greater security to those who are retired or cannot work, just as we promised to do. Indeed, social security spending would be decreasing in real terms, for the first time since the second world war, had we not deliberately chosen to spend more on families with children, people with disabilities and pensioners.

All that stands in stark contrast to what happened in the 1980s, when, as we remember--in 1988, 1989 and 1990--Tory Secretaries of State came to the House to announce that they would freeze child benefit. By contrast, last year, we were able to announce a record increase in child benefit--which, this year, is being increased yet again.

Today's uprating order will increase most income- related benefits by the Rossi index, which is 1.6 per cent., in the usual way. However, there are a number of areas in which we want to do more than that.

First, we want to do more for children. We are determined to eradicate child poverty in this country, and to halve it in 10 years. When the Government came into office, one child in three was living below the bread line. That is unacceptable. It is economic madness, and it is also morally wrong to hold back a whole generation of children.

As a result of our Budget measures, a million children will be lifted out of poverty. That will deliver real opportunity for everyone, not just the privileged few.

However, from April next year we will go further. That is why we are increasing child benefit, and introducing the new children's tax credit. As a result of these measures, and of the working families tax credit, a single-earner family with two children, on half average earnings, will see its living standards rise by 20 per cent. this year--the biggest annual rise for a quarter of a century. By the end of this Parliament, we will be spending almost £6 billion extra a year on support for families with children, with most of the help going to the poorest families.

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