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Mr. Davis: I read the Select Committee report--and a good report it was too. No one is proposing uncontrolled subcontracting of the management of adoption to such bodies without any measurement of their performance. The point of the quality protects scheme is that it provides the option of comparing the public sector with the voluntary sector.
Mr. Hinchliffe: I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman, who does a thorough job in the House. I draw his attention to the comments of Lady Thatcher a couple of years ago. She said that child care should be placed in the hands of Churches and voluntary organisations. At the time, I was instructed by the Select Committee on Health to write to her and to draw her attention to what happened last time our society did just that. I have heard the Leader of the Opposition make the same point. Perhaps I have misunderstood, but the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) knows that hard lessons were learned from that child migrant experience, and I hope that we never repeat it.
Mr. Brazier: The role of Church bodies, such as the Catholic Children's Society, in placing some of the most difficult children in the care system is second to none. Child migration was a Government policy, and however unsatisfactory some of the placements by Church organisations may have been, it is unfair to suggest that only they were to blame for what went wrong. The House was well aware of the process and successive Governments approved it.
Mr. Hinchliffe: I was not suggesting otherwise. The Health Committee report made it absolutely clear that successive Governments and all three parties were involved. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the Children Act 1948 should have provided a clear duty to check on the placements of those children, even though they were in Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the world. I am not denigrating all voluntary and Church organisations: I have worked with many of them, and have the greatest respect for them. However, a bland suggestion that we hand over this difficult, sensitive function to such organisations should be thought through. Some of the comments that I have heard--not from him but from members of his party--have not addressed the problem.
Mrs. Spelman: To clarify that point, I was talking about lay visiting and access to the outside world. Under the Care Standards Act 2000, voluntary agencies are regulated in the same way as local authority agencies, so that would provide some protection.
Mr. Hinchliffe: I am grateful for the hon. Lady's clarification of that point, but to hand the child care function to some of these organisations wholesale would not make sense. If that is not what she meant, I am happy to accept her reassurance.
I am concerned that adoption has become a political issue, as it never has been before in the House. It has been hijacked by people who occasionally give the impression that children are commodities who can be accorded to
What worries me about some statements and press coverage is that concern for the welfare of potential adopters has overtaken concern for the welfare and best interests of the child, which should be the central issue, and is at the heart of the Bill. The Bill is right to make the key point that the welfare of an individual child should be the central consideration in any practical steps towards adoption.
I am interested in the comments that have been made about political correctness. The term is bandied about by the tabloids time and again. It is often impossible for the people who are being accused of political correctness to defend themselves against the accusation. I have been accused of being politically correct on these issues.
We should consider in detail how to place children for adoption. Is it wrong in principle to try to find adoptive parents with physical similarities or common ethnic, cultural, religious or linguistic backgrounds? From my experience, I do not think that it is politically correct to suggest that, when appropriate, that should happen. When I was on an adoption panel, we tried to do what we believed to be in the best interests of the children so that they fitted into the family and did not stand out. Many children of that age cannot handle it if they are in school or wherever and are publicly seen to be adopted. In later life they may be able to deal with it, but not as youngsters.
I do not think that it is unreasonable to try to find adoptive parents who are likely to be alive while the child is growing up. It is reasonable to try to ensure that people who adopt a youngster are likely to live long enough to ensure that the child is eased through adolescence and into adulthood. I do not think that that is politically correct.
Surely it is also right to try to find adoptive parents who are in good health. Does not a child have that right? Is not it appropriate to attempt to place a youngster with people who are in good health and will be able to offer the care that a child with a difficult and traumatic background will need? That child's behaviour will occasionally challenge those parents.
Is it wrong to try to ensure that a child is not sentenced to a life of passive smoking? We have been criticised for not placing children with smokers. A youngster may be placed with people who smoke day in, day out. Do we not have a duty to that child to ensure that he is brought up in a more healthy environment? The state says that it will take account of the child's interest, but is it in the best interests of the child to be placed where he or she will be exposed to the commonly known health effects of passive smoking through living with people who smoke like chimneys?
Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman is developing his argument in his customary carefully thought-through fashion. Surely in each of his examples, the point is about what options are available. Of course, if an Afro- Caribbean family is available for each Afro-Caribbean child, that is where such children should be placed. If there is a gross shortage of Afro-Caribbean families for children to go to--as there is in London--and there is a large number of Afro-Caribbean children for adoption, it becomes political correctness if adoption is stopped because the option of going to white parents is ruled out.
Mr. Hinchliffe: I think that it has been accepted on a cross-party basis that what concerns us is what is in the best interests of individual children. I certainly accept that a child should not be placed with a family who accord with that child's cultural background if such a placement is not in the child's best interests; I have no argument with that. My argument is with those who make political points about all the children whose placements are held up by lunatic social workers who are being politically correct. That is a convenient hanger on which to hook various prejudices against social workers, which, generally, has no basis in fact.
Mr. Davis: The hon. Gentleman began by saying that there seemed to be more concern for the adopter than for the child. The intention is clearly to secure as many adopters as possible, and it is easy to confuse the two sets of interests.
I asked the Minister a question about practicality. He could not answer it--understandably, as this is a big Bill. My question concerns the requirement on religion. A child may be too young to know what religion is. The case that I had in mind involved a Turkish Muslim child. What if there are no Muslims around? Race and religion are specified in the Bill; in the circumstances that I have described, would it be possible to find a non-Muslim adoptive parent for that child? In my view, the answer should be yes, but I fear that the Bill will not allow it.
Mr. Hinchliffe: I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. I keep returning to my experience of meeting child migrants--placed under a scheme with which he is familiar--who were deeply offended that their background had been ignored, even in the case of babies or young children aged two to five who could not express their views.
In certain circumstances, we should also take account of the views of natural parents. Increasingly--and rightly--attempts are made to consider their views during the adoption proposals, and the Bill will enable that to happen even more. A provision near the end, which the Minister outlined, will deal with such issues.
Social workers see people when they are grown up who ask damned awkward questions about why certain things were done when they were five. We need to think about what children who are adopted will ask us in years to come. During the child migrant inquiry, my good friend Audrey Wise and I used to wonder whether, in 20 or 30 years, people would ask us why we, as Members of Parliament, had acceded to certain proposals.
Let me make a final point about political correctness. The hon. Member for Meriden mentioned case C and case H, or whatever they were, which were contained in a document that I have not seen--although I shall be happy to have a look at it. She spoke of people who were not told why they had been turned down. I know of a number of instances in which it was not possible to give reasons. In those instances, information had come to light during investigations of prospective adopters, which, had it been passed on, would have had an appalling effect on those involved--would, perhaps, have ended their marriages.
I can give a good example. This is why I intervened on the Minister to mention medical information. A colleague of mine asked a doctor for a medical reference, and was told that the male partner was being treated for a sexually transmitted disease. The information clearly showed that he was having a relationship outside his marriage. Would it have been appropriate to place a child with that couple, given that the facts were known? We thought that it might not be appropriate.
Would it have been appropriate to tell the couple why we had not approved the placement? The hon. Member for Meriden might say that it would, but although she may portray all the issues as black and white, they are various shades of grey. Nothing is straightforward: in many cases people cannot be told why they have been turned down.
There are medical checks. There are police checks. Prospective adoptive parents give the names of referees whom they may know well, and those referees sometimes tell social workers all sorts of things that the prospective adoptive parents would not expect them to. It is, however, a very good way of obtaining information that ought to be available when a child's placement is being considered. Telling people why they have been turned down may be more damaging than leaving them in ignorance.
Social workers are often criticised. People say, "We were given no information", and the press report it, because it is good tabloid stuff. I have talked to members of social services departments who could not say why people had been turned down, but I know for a fact that there were damned good reasons. It is naive to suggest that people should always be told why they have been turned down. If we legislate for that, some interesting situations will arise. Those who work with adoptions pick up background knowledge that some people do not want to be made public even to their spouses.
I fear that we misunderstand the role of social workers. I have not been a social worker for some years, but I recall cases with which I used to deal, and wish desperately that there were more people in the Chamber with similar experience. As the Minister may know, on Friday I attended a ceremony in my constituency at which Wakefield council, which had been granted beacon status for its policies in respect of children leaving care--I am proud of that--gave awards to those involved. Some were youngsters who had been in care.
A social worker who was present told me that it would be nice to hear Ministers and other Members positively recognise the work of local authority social workers. Social workers feel that debates such as this are all about attacking their work. Although the vast majority of adoptions are organised skilfully and successfully, we never hear about that. We never hear about the positive
I have made suggestions before. The Industry and Parliament Trust enables Members to spend six months in Boots, for instance. They can spend time in the Army, the Navy or the Royal Air Force. Why not place a few in local authority social services departments? Six months in an inner-city social services department would do some of them a power of good.
I have spoken for a long time, mainly because of all the interventions. Let me end by saying that there are delays, and that some are due to bureaucracy; but there are other reasons for the delays, and sometimes the delays are appropriate. It is entirely wrong to rush adoptions. Moreover, as the Minister probably understands, delays are often beyond the control of local authority staff. Locating natural parents may take time, for example. I would want to ensure that the rights of the natural parents were appropriately considered. I have seen situations where they have not been treated seriously, as they should be. Sometimes, time is spent wrestling with the rights and feelings of natural parents, and working out the right thing to do in particular circumstances.
Time is spent dealing with the child's own wishes. Sometimes, a lot of work needs to be done on what the child feels. That cannot be bounced through in six weeks. It does not work that way. We can have all the targets and tick off little boxes, but the time that will need to be spent with people on what is a huge issue in a child's life will differ.
Many local authorities are short of social workers. They are short because people put the boot into social workers so much. People have to be asking for trouble to go into social work nowadays. The career prospects are such that I wonder about the motivation of the people going in. They get so much flak from the media that it is amazing that we still get people training to be social workers. We should look at why many areas have a shortage of staff and a lack of resources, which cause the delays. I recognise--the Minister has picked up the point--that, in many areas, there are delays in the court process, too. I appreciate the fact that the matter is looked at in the Bill.
I turn to the detail of the Government proposals. The welfare principle is perhaps the key point. I welcome the fact that that is central to the legislation. I also welcome the way in which the Government are providing additional resources; that picks up my point about shortage of staff and problems in social services departments.
I welcome the fact that the Government want to introduce initiatives on training, but, in her response, the Minister may wish to comment on whether we should seriously consider extending basic social work professional training from two years to the three taken virtually throughout Europe. This is exactly the sort of matter for which social workers need more preparation.
I welcome the new framework for adoption allowances. I say that because I had a case a little while ago where a couple in my constituency who had adopted two siblings could not afford to adopt the third because the local authority involved was not prepared or able to pay adoption allowances to cover the absence from work of
I welcome post-adoption support. There has been a gap there. I recall dealing with cases--not my cases, fortunately, but cases from predecessors--where things had gone wrong. The adoptive parents did not feel able to turn to anyone. They were told, "Hard lines. Little Johnny is your kid now. He is your problem." We should be more sensitive about that problem, which does occur. I welcome the way in which the Bill deals with it.
I am interested in the special guardianship option where full adoption is inappropriate. The special Select Committee will want to look at that. The Government's proposal that the Bill be examined by such a Committee is common sense.
On overseas adoptions, I have felt strongly about the way in which, until quite recently, the emphasis has been on the needs and desires of potential adopters, not the background of the children concerned. In 1991, through a charity that my wife was involved in, I went to a nursery in Romania where there were 100 children. They were supposedly orphans. When I asked the woman in charge how many were actually orphans, she said that, out of 100, 99 had their own families who could not afford to feed and care for them.
At that stage, there was huge emphasis in this place to get all the children over here and adopted. The pressure should have been on getting those kids back to their natural families, fed and properly looked after in their own countries. I welcome the way in which the present Government and indeed the previous Government addressed the issue. It is wrong for people to remove children in those circumstances. The real issue is addressing the circumstances of those children in their own homes.
I turn that point around to children in our own country. I see far too many cases where adoption is the option that families eventually get into when what is needed is intensive support and work with those families. Sometimes, it is a lot easier and cheaper to move for adoption. I am dealing with a case where a family are having difficulty functioning. They came to me because the children had been removed and were in care. They may be placed for adoption. What they need is intensive care and support. What that family offer is love. That counts for a lot. We should do more in supporting such people to enable them to bring up their own children, where that is possible.
I welcome the Bill, but I end on a perhaps cautionary note. The Select Committee on Health considered looked-after children. We made the point not only that adoption was important, but that, sometimes, children positively chose to stay in residential care. We were surprised to find that out in talking to children in the care system. Some of them saw it as a positive choice, so I hope that our emphasis on the legislation today will not give the impression that alternative options may not be appropriate and in the best interests of the child.
The message that goes out from the Bill is that the best interests of the child should be central to all decisions. I welcome the fact that that principle is central to the Bill. I hope that, after the special Select Committee looks at it, we will have a Bill that hon. Members in all parties can be proud of.