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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Naturally, all Conservative Members await the onset of the general election campaign with relish and nothing else. However, will my hon. Friend confirm that his enthusiasm for maximum time to debate private Members' Bills is not unqualified or unconditional? When he sees some of the nanny-state, interfering, regulating, tinkering, mollycoddling contents of some of those Bills, his enthusiasm may abate.

Mr. Chope: I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I would defend to the death the right of Members, however misguided, to put their proposition to the House and have it debated. I am not saying that I will agree with all those nanny-state propositions: far from it. However, it is right that people should have a chance to advance them. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) thinks that it is important to legislate on the

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issue of high hedges. I am not sure how that will be achieved successfully, but I hope that we will be able to have a full debate on the matter.

The Government have already promised to legislate on high hedges--or, rather, they have given the impression that they will legislate on them. However, in practice, they are not introducing a Bill on high hedges because they obviously realise that it is extremely difficult to get even a proper definition of a hedge that will satisfy people at large. I certainly receive more letters about high hedges than about hunting.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman to wander a little bit from the motion, but now I really must bring him back to the main motion.

Mr. Chope: High hedges are the subject of the third private Member's Bill to be presented, which, I understand, will be debated on the third Friday: that specific date is on the Order Paper. I hope that my remarks about legislation on high hedges are in order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall not say much more about those hedges now, although I hope that when the Minister responds, he will explain why the Government, having promised to legislate, have not introduced legislation on them. That would allow us to see the colour of such legislation and whether it would meet the needs of our constituents.

6.19 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): I, too, have a vested interest in the debate, as I was sixth in the lottery for private Members' Bills. I am in an interesting position because--although there is nothing official, in writing, to guide the public--the received wisdom is that there will be a 3 May general election, so that my Adoption Bill would be considered on the last Friday before Dissolution. The restriction on the number of available Fridays is therefore very pertinent to my position.

In my short time in the House, I have learned to keep within the spirit of private Members' Bills by choosing an issue on which there is very broad agreement. I therefore chose as the subject of my Bill the reform of adoption law. It is rather fortuitous that the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), who is responsible for the issue, is in the Chamber. He will be very familiar with the correspondence that we have exchanged on the subject.

I should like to pick up on various issues raised in the debate by Opposition Members, not the least of which is the late starting date of this Session, as that seems to be the key reason why we may be up against the problem of an impossible timetable for considering a private Member's Bill that enjoys very broad support. Indeed, the reason why consideration of almost all private Members' Bills in this Session is an academic matter is that the previous Session ran so late into last calendar year. The public will find that very difficult to understand.

There has been great support for the subject of my Bill--the reform of adoption law--and the public will be incredulous that the Government seem to regard foxhunting as a more important legislative priority than

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children in need of adoption. The Government's priorities have left some of my constituents and British adoption agencies bemused, to say the least.

I very deliberately chose adoption as the subject of my Bill to try to add a bit of pressure on the Government to introduce the reforms that, in July 2000, in debates on the Care Standards Act 2000, they undertook to make. Back in July, we were given assurances that legislation would be forthcoming, and the Prime Minister had just conducted a review of adoption. Indeed, the Opposition gave Ministers the opportunity to add new provisions to the 2000 Act to introduce the reforms that the Prime Minister said he wanted. That offer was refused, and we were told to wait for later Government legislation.

We waited for the Queen's Speech, but there was nothing in it about adoption reform. Consequently, I have taken the opportunity to address the issue in my Bill. Moreover, I generously offered in writing to allow Ministers to use that opportunity to introduce their own draft Bill to reform adoption law. However, my offer was churlishly rejected on the grounds that a private Member's Bill would be piecemeal and could not possibly introduce such legislation. Well, Ministers were already making a mighty assumption about what my Bill should contain. As the Minister of State knows, I have told him that my Bill should contain the White Paper proposals which have received consensual support and require primary legislation. That offer was generously made.

Last week, at Prime Minister's questions, the plot seemed to thicken. In answer to a question asked by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister said that the Government would introduce legislation in this Session to reform adoption. That was very interesting. We have probed the Government on the matter of "this Session" because, as we are all aware, it seems that there is not a great deal left of this Session.

Mr. Bercow: Given that, as my hon. Friend rightly says, the Government's legislative priorities are perverse and are likely to be regarded with rank disdain by millions of people who believe that the adoption issue should be properly addressed long before and instead of that of hunting, does she agree that the great danger is that the Government will not want to reach that sixth Friday, for they will not want to suffer the public opprobrium to which they would be subject if her patient and articulate advocacy of her measure were effectively to show up the Government's failing in that regard?

Mrs. Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I think that he is thinking precisely as I am--that the subject of my private Member's Bill, in the context of the concertinaed time scale afforded us, is a source of very real embarrassment to the Government; and so it should be. Undoubtedly when history looks back at the Government's choice of legislation which they could have passed in this Parliament with their very large majority, their failure to introduce legislation reforming adoption will be particularly regretted.

I hope that I have the opportunity of a Second Reading for my Bill, as I shall use it to underline the point that the Government undertook to introduce such reform. Indeed, at last week's Prime Minister's questions, the Prime Minister promised to introduce such reform. It will be very interesting to see what happens. I should add that the

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Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999, to which the Government have referred, has already been enacted. It would not, therefore, serve to fulfil the Prime Minister's promise.

As a holder of one of the opportunities to promote private Member's legislation, I feel passionately about this debate. More time could have been allowed to consider private Members' Bills, and the Government could have chosen a better set of priorities. Those two factors would have made a substantial difference to the way in which I view restrictions on Back Benchers' opportunities to deal with very important matters.

Mr. Redwood: Has my hon. Friend been approached by representatives of the Government to say that they find her initiative very helpful and that they would like her to help draft the Bill, as it might get the Prime Minister off the hook? Or has there been absolutely no dialogue at all, and does the Prime Minister seem not to wish to honour that particular pledge?

Mrs. Spelman: I am very sorry to tell my right hon. Friend that my overtures have been rebuffed. Perhaps we should not be entirely surprised about that. I have certainly written twice to the Minister, reiterating our offer and making it clear that my opportunity to promote a private Member's Bill could be a vehicle for the Government's own draft Bill. We know that a draft Bill already exists. I have asked for a copy of it, but I have not been afforded one. After the Prime Minister's response at Prime Minister's questions last week, we probed the Government on the issue, but there has been no clarification of what legislation he plans to introduce in this Session, as he has promised to do.

Mr. Hogg: Is my hon. Friend saying that she has given the Government the opportunity to use her Bill to implement their own stated commitments? If that is so, can she explain why they have not taken advantage of the offer?

Mrs. Spelman: I note the tone of incredulity in my right hon. and learned Friend's voice. However, incredulous though he may be, the situation that I have described is absolutely true. My only conclusion on why the Government have so churlishly rejected my offer is that they are too proud to accept it.

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