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Mr. Brazier: Before my hon. Friend moves from that case, which involved constituents of mine, it is worth observing that, in hedging around the rejection, a number of other factors were produced, at least one of which was easily shown to be wholly untrue. That shows that

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political correctness in consideration of adoption is very often in the background and not overt. There is a real problem.

Mrs. Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend for that point. It shows how important an independent review procedure will be in properly and objectively establishing the causes of rejection.

These case studies help us to understand some of the present problems, but until we define them correctly, we cannot hope to get the legislation right. Applicants need to feel confidence in the ability of those assessing them. One of the Bill's main purposes should be to restore confidence among all parties in the adoption system.

If we stand back and think what we are legislating for, we may conclude that it is in no small part due to big changes in British society. The advent of new methods of contraception has meant fewer babies for adoption. There is also less of a stigma attached to a young mother who raises a child on her own, although that is still not easy. As the Institute of Economic Affairs report states:

All such trends have contributed to a dramatic reduction in the number of babies who are adopted, and the total number of adoptions fell from 20,000 in 1970 to 4,100 in 1999. That is against a background of declining fertility in society. The total number of children in care fluctuates at about 100,000. As the Minister pointed out, local authorities' success rate in getting such children adopted varies hugely.

Those are some of the key trends that form the context against which the Bill should be considered. I should like to deal with some of the aspects that the Minister highlighted. The Bill's success or failure will lie in our skill in striking the right balance in the eternal triangle of the birth family, the adopters and the adoptee. We must decide whose needs take priority. The Opposition welcome the statement in clause 1 that

However, we recognise also that the Bill contains other provisions that may nibble away at that apparently unequivocal statement of the paramountcy of the child. The over-arching provision contained in clause 1 may be compromised if the Bill is not seamlessly melded with the Children Act 1989. The Bill uses the word "must" to convey an imperative, but the 1989 Act uses the word "shall". Some lawyers will make hay--and, I fear, a lot of money--out of the difference between such provisions, and the child at the centre will suffer a delay.

I am not sure whether those discrepancies are deliberate or were caused simply by the rush to introduce the Bill before the election. Nevertheless, the delay described in clause 1(3) is significantly different from that described in the Children Act 1989, and problems about its meaning are likely to generate a lot of litigation. The Bill states:

However, the 1989 Act states that the

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As an aside, I should point out that the needs of the child's siblings or half-siblings are given no prominence in the Bill. I believe that special mention should be made of the other children, as a child undeniably derives security from his or her siblings. Today's edition of The Times contains an article about adoption, with the headline "Adoption chiefs are advised to split up siblings". The person interviewed in the article, who represents the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, recognises that

but states:

What is the Minister's view of that statement? In the Opposition's view, it is important to keep siblings together. The weakness in the proposal made by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering is that it addresses the problem's symptoms, but not its cause. We are short of families to adopt, but that difficulty should not be resolved by jeopardising children's welfare and the security that they could gain from being placed with their siblings.

We have sought to help the Government to introduce a national adoption register to improve and speed up the matching process. When we sought to provide such help with regard to the Care Standards Act 2000, the Minister was uncertain whether the matter needed primary legislation. It was my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) who pointed out the need for such provision, but it will not prove to be a delay-busting measure without two things.

First, local authorities should be under a statutory duty to place their approved prospective adopters on the list. The Bill would achieve that. Secondly, there should be a method of passporting money with the child. Without that, a local authority would have little incentive to seek the best match from the national register. It is critical for the money for recruiting adopting parents and for post- adoption support to follow the child from the local authority where the child was in care to the local authority where the adopters live. Without that, one of the old barriers in the system remains firmly in place.

We should not skate over the genuine problem that social services departments are struggling to provide services, yet the Bill imposes considerable extra requirements on them. I appreciate that the Government have allocated an extra £66 million, but there is no guarantee that it will be spent on adoption. The new requirements under the Bill create extra work, such as making timely assessments of the needs of not only the child, but the prospective adopters and even the birth family. Given the current shortage of social workers, it is difficult to understand how some local authorities will cope with that.

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Although assessments of post-adoption support may be carried out, thereby raising expectations, many social services departments will simply be unable to provide what they assess that they need. The Bill leaves it open for a local authority to decide that it simply cannot provide the necessary support. The nationwide target of a 40 per cent. increase in adoptions of looked-after children is meaningless when local authorities' performance varies so widely.

We are therefore pleased that clause 12 provides for default powers for dealing with a failing authority. However, how will they complement the best-value principles in local government legislation? Will the Care Standards Commission have a role in monitoring performance, and perhaps impose penalties for non- compliance?

Mr. Hutton: I hope that I am not reading too much into the hon. Lady's words, but perhaps she will explain whether the Conservative party believes that the local authority should remain the agency that is charged with responsibility for adoption and fostering. I get the impression that she is saying that that should not be the case.

Mrs. Spelman: When we discuss independent review procedures, perhaps the Minister will realise what we have in mind for granting a greater role to the children's rights director and the children's commissioner. However, I participated in discussions on the Care Standards Act 2000 and, as the Minister was keen to point out to me then, he has powers to monitor carefully the role of the local authority; he also has powers over the voluntary agency. He said:

Adoption allowances undoubtedly need an overhaul. The subject has long been unclear and the Bill does little to clarify it. When a local authority applies for a placement order and places a foster child with prospective adopters, do they get an allowance? If so, how much? Foster families who decide to adopt appear to have to pass up on three months' worth of allowances when they have tendered for adoption. Low-income families are already under-represented among adopters, and that will not help. We are generally short of couples who are willing to foster, and money can be an important factor. Those who foster informally, such as other family members or close friends and neighbours who take children in, are provided for especially poorly.

One of the most controversial aspects of adoption is the parting process, when a child leaves its birth family. Many birth parents feel sore about children being taken from them against their will. We acknowledge that it is sometimes right to do that. The Bill establishes a new method of doing that through placement orders, which replace the freeing orders of the Adoption Act 1976.

Clause 17 states that an adoption agency can

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We must also assist those who voluntarily consent to their children being adopted. However, clause 21 prevents people who have given advance consent to the adoption of their child from withdrawing that consent. That is utterly draconian and will make it very unlikely that advance consent will be given in most cases. There are also inconsistencies between clauses 21 and 39, which might be as a result of the haste with which the Bill was prepared.

We understood, from the Minister's presentation to the all-party parliamentary group on adoption, that special guardianship was designed to cater for children from particular ethnic backgrounds, and from particular religious backgrounds such as Islam, in which parental rights cannot be revoked. It was also designed for older children who do not wish to sever their ties completely. I would be interested to hear the Minister confirm that, when a special guardianship is an end in itself, the placement order is a step towards adoption.

Hon. Members have raised the matter of information. Although the Bill represents an improvement on the present provisions in that respect, it could be improved further. Clause 48 provides for information to be given to an adopted person when he or she attains the age of 18, but the procedure in Scotland gives an adopted child the right to that information at the age of 16. With a copy of his or her birth certificate--easily obtained, with some recognised form of identification, from the General Register Office for Scotland--a child can obtain access to court records and thereby trace, for example, any agencies involved in the process. Also in Scotland, information is held under the child's original and adopted names.

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