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10.15 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing a debate on the issues relating to the criteria for adoption. I pay tribute to him for the way in which he has presented his case with his customary skill and precision. He has put forward a strong case and made some important points.

The hon. Gentleman raised several issues to do with the White Paper and he also referred to the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999. He was right to say that his hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) introduced this important Act, and we are very pleased that he did. One of the things that it will do is impose an obligation on local authorities to provide a proper inter-country adoption service. The hon. Member for Twickenham asked whether a proper agency would facilitate the process; in future, that will be done by local authorities or approved adoption agencies. That is an important safeguard for the quality and the integrity of the inter-country adoption procedure. I know that he and his hon. Friend support that very much, as we do.

The hon. Gentleman was right to say that the Act has not yet been brought into effect. I know that some Members will ask why not, since it was enacted in 1999. We have already brought one section of the Act into effect, and that relates to ensuring that people who want to adopt a child from abroad conduct a proper home assessment study in this country which has not been privately commissioned. Several concerns have been expressed about privately commissioned home study reports, and we have made sure that that practice will come to an end.

However the main thrust of the Act is to provide the legal platform to allow the United Kingdom to ratify the Hague convention. We have to ratify it as a United Kingdom, so the equivalent regulations and legislation have to pass through both the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Scottish Parliament has completed its processes but, unfortunately, the Northern

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Ireland Assembly has not yet done that. I understand that it will do so later this summer, but we are not able to ratify the convention until the Northern Ireland Assembly has completed its deliberations. I hope that will be done soon, and I want to dispel any suggestion that we might be dragging our feet on ratifying the Hague convention. That is not so, but we have to ratify the convention as a United Kingdom.

The hon. Gentleman raised several important points about aspects of the White Paper that relate to national standards. He asked us to ensure that there is a bit more warmth, as regards the national standards, towards prospective adopters, and raised several important points about the appeal process. I am sure that he understands that the standards have been issued for consultation. We have not yet made any final decisions on what they will look like, and we shall have to wait to see what suggestions people make during the consultation exercise. We shall consider ways of improving the operation of the standards, and we shall examine carefully his comments about prospective adopters.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to reaffirm our commitment to the introduction of an independent appeals system for prospective adopters who might have been turned down by an adoption panel. As the White Paper made clear, we are fully committed to introducing a proper independent appeal system. There are number of reasons for doing that, and I shall mention two tonight. First, such a system would support good decision making in local authorities. I do not subscribe to the view that an independent appeal system will impede the process of coming to a speedy decision on adoption or will give rise to bad decisions because people are looking over their shoulders at the person standing behind them. It is important that people know that there is an independent and effective appeals procedure, and I believe that that will support, not impede, good decision making.

The second reason is simple. Concerns have been expressed about the process by which people are approved for adoption. The hon. Gentleman referred to that. Although national standards will help people to be confident that they are being treated fairly and properly, if an adoption panel decides to reject an application, the person concerned will have the right to go to an independent appeal process. It is important that we put behind us the arguments that people have been treated arbitrarily or unreasonably, because such claims are likely to impede our attempts to create greater confidence in the system. We want more people to offer themselves as adoptive parents.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned fast-tracking for infants. The adoption standards in the recent White Paper made it clear that we will ensure that voluntarily relinquished infants are placed for adoption, wherever possible, within three months. Disagreement would make that task harder, but we should be able to proceed more quickly if a child is voluntarily relinquished.

There is significant interest in the general matter of adoption. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the press and wider public interest in the adoption process which has been sparked by a long-running concern, as expressed by hon. Members, about the failures of the looked-after care system. We know that many children who leave care have limited prospects of employment and few educational

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qualifications. Many of them will experience periods of homelessness and joblessness. That is unacceptable. People in care deserve the same opportunities to enjoy a stable and secure family life as any other child. Unfortunately, they have been denied that because of the way in which the care system has worked. The Government are clear that adoption holds out a positive opportunity for young people in care to enjoy the opportunities that we have taken for granted for our children.

For those reasons, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister initiated a thorough review of adoption in February. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend commissioned the performance and innovation unit in the Cabinet Office to consider the evidence and make recommendations. The report was published on 7 July last year. Following extensive consultation, we published the White Paper "Adoption: a new approach" on 21 December. It outlines the most radical overhaul of adoption law and practice in more than 25 years and sets out a vision for high-quality public services that offer new opportunities for looked-after children. It is based on placing their needs first and designed entirely from their perspective.

We know that adoption works and want more children to benefit from the generosity and commitment of adoptive families. The White Paper sets a new national target to deliver a minimum 40 per cent. increase in the number of lasting adoptions by the year 2005, although I hope that the Government's measures will help to achieve a 50 per cent. increase in 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 loving new family.

To meet that target, we must attract more prospective adopters. The hon. Gentleman is right about that. We must attract adopters who are suitable to meet the needs of children in the care system. We need more ethnic minority and black adopters. We also need more adopters who are able to take on sibling groups, because that is a particular issue. We also know that there is widespread concern about the fairness, clarity and consistency of the adoption process. Many people have explained that that could be deterring many potential adopters from coming forward.

To help to address those problems, we published 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, making adoption services faster, fairer and more transparent. They have been written to ensure that looked-after children, prospective adopters, birth families and the general public understand what they can expect from the adoption service. They will also set challenging new targets to speed up the adoption process. I shall say a little more about that in a moment, because the hon. Gentleman expressed concern about that aspect of our proposals.

The draft national standards are underpinned by a clear set of values that govern the way in which adoption services should be managed. Most importantly, the national standards clearly spell out that the welfare, safety and needs of children must be put at the centre of the adoption process. It is important for us all to remember that adoption is about meeting the needs of children, not the needs of adults.

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The Prime Minister's review of adoption identified many concerns about the current adoption process. In particular, many concerns were expressed about the assessment process for prospective adopters. At the moment that is widely perceived to be too slow, too intrusive and too bureaucratic. We are tackling those concerns.

The standards will set out how prospective adopters will be welcomed and treated in an open and fair way. In future, written eligibility criteria will be provided. People will not automatically be excluded on grounds of their age, health or other factors. There must be no blanket bans based on arbitrary criteria, because they are unfair to children who are waiting to be adopted and to prospective adopters.

The standards also make it clear that the best family for a child will be one that reflects their birth heritage. I know that the hon. Gentleman was concerned about a constituency case in which that was a controversial issue. However, no child should be denied a loving adoptive family solely on the grounds that the parents have different racial or cultural backgrounds. The primary consideration in determining a child's adoptive parents must be the child's needs, safety and well-being.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear, as I was, that current research--such as that recently published by Rushton and Minis--has confirmed that although a same-race placement is preferable, it should not be pursued at the expense of a child drifting in the care system. Our guidance to adoption agencies strongly reinforces this view.

The draft standards also propose new time scales for processing applications from prospective adopters. They can expect a written response to a first inquiry within a week; a follow-up interview and an invitation to a preparation meeting within two months, and a decision within six months of making an application to proceed. That will be a substantial improvement on the current arrangements.

We accept that delivering that will be a challenge for local social services departments. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have found, as I have, that some social services departments are able to achieve that already. The issue, as in the national health service, is consistency of performance and of raising the standards of all authorities to those achieved by the best. We know that that can be done because some authorities are doing it already. Clearly, the hurdles are not insurmountable. Social services departments will need to be supported by clear direction of public policy and backed up by investment of new resources. I hope that we are providing a clear lead on that.

For foster carers who want to adopt a child, when it is in the child's interests to do so, the application will in future be processed in just three months.

We need to recruit more adopters, however, and from more diverse ethnic backgrounds, and that is a priority too. In future, information on becoming an adoptive parent will be provided promptly, and will include details about what is expected of adopters. The assessment process will be faster, fairer and more transparent, with prospective adopters being given the opportunity to attend

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preparation meetings, to learn more about the children waiting for adoption and to talk to others who have adopted children. I hope that the measures will help us to treat adopters better and to support them better so that we can attract more adoptive parents to adopt more children successfully.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, prospective adopters will have, for the first time, a right to a wholly independent review of their application, should they be turned down by an adoption agency. The PIU report recommended that an appeals mechanism for potential adopters should be put in place in all local authorities, whereby applicants who have been rejected could have their case reviewed by a panel in a neighbouring area. Feedback from the consultation exercise on the report showed that many people were concerned that this would not be independent enough. I agree.

That is why we have decided to introduce a new independent review procedure for potential adopters whose application is rejected. For the first time, prospective adopters who are to be turned down will have the right to a fully independent review of their case. We will establish an independent body, appointed by the Secretary of State. Its role will be to set up a new adoption panel to look at all the evidence again, and to make a new recommendation to the agency, either in support of the original decision or against it. The agency will have to take account of that new recommendation before making its final decision. The new panel will be entirely independent, with no representation on it from the original panel. I accept that the Department will need to do more work to finalise the details of how the new independent appeals system will work. We will bring forward our proposals in the near future.

This year the Government will carry out a fundamental review of the adoption assessment process and the operation of adoption panels, including consideration of streamlining the assessment of "second time around" adopters, to explore what improvements could be made, with a view to implementing improvements during 2002.

In the meantime, we will be working with local authorities to review current assessment practice and to identify areas of best practice. We will also be consulting stakeholders later in the year on how the assessment process could be tailored for different groups such as foster carers, friends and families, and those who have adopted previously.

The White Paper also spelled out that a clearer legal duty will be placed on local councils to plan for and provide comprehensive support services for adoptive families. That will apply equally to all adopters, including those adopting children from overseas. Families adopting 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 throughout the country--

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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