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Mr. Brazier: And mental health problems.

Mr. Davis: Indeed; my hon. Friend is quite right. The sum involved might be large, but it will be justified by the social benefits that it will bring. It will not be an issue for long because if it works--and it must work--the savings made elsewhere will pay it off.

I have one mild rebuke for the Government. I do not think that the target of a 40 per cent. increase is enough. The simple fact is that the Americans, working to a similar timetable, managed a 65 per cent. increase in adoptions. The most successful states--I accept that they are the smaller ones--have managed to double the numbers. The rate of adoption from care must be greater than the number of children who come into care by a significant amount to reduce the 58,000. That is what we want to achieve. I hope that Ministers intend to hit their targets and exceed them by a large margin. I shall do all I can to support anything that they do to achieve that end.

The Bill is important. As the Minister said, such legislation is produced once in a generation. It is not easy to get such Bills into the House. The 1926 legislation started with a commission in, I think, 1920. In one respect at least, this Bill has been introduced quickly. We owe it to those 58,000 young lives to implement its provisions. It may not rescue their life chances, but I hope that it will rescue those of succeeding generations so that when the Minister comes back to the House as Secretary of State after the next Tory Government, he can tell us about the 5,000 children in care, not the 58,000.

7.21 pm

Liz Blackman (Erewash): At the start of the debate, I found myself wondering what the House would be like if it operated as a supermarket in which people with small amounts in their baskets could pass easily through. I am glad that it does not, because I have been privileged to hear the quality of the contributions of hon. Members who have a vast experience and knowledge of the subject. some of whom have worked in the sector. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) shared her experience of adopting a child.

I am pleased that the Bill has been introduced. I am also pleased by the speed with which Second Reading has followed the White Paper. If it was prompted on its way by the Waterhouse report, so much the better. With regard

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to what the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said, I do not think that that is a political point. Some reports are so severe and damning that the Government have to pick them up and run with them.

I mentioned the basket-only express counter in the supermarket because there is not much in my basket. I do not have a vast knowledge of adoption, but a couple of years ago two constituents raised a specific issue with me and it is their case that prompted me to speak. They had two sad experiences of the adoption process, both involving the same issue, which is important to the process.

My constituents are a married couple with a child. For medical reasons, they cannot have any more children. They chose to adopt because they believed that they had a loving family to offer to another child. In 1998, having been accepted as approved prospective adopters, they linked up with a northern local authority. Although they constantly asked for detailed information on two small children, it was either withheld or insufficient. They ended up going to the area and spending four days with the two children. The behaviour of the younger child, who was very tiny, was challenging. It upset the parents, their child and the little boy concerned. My constituents believe that if they had been given more information, they might have made a judgment about the adoption before they got into that situation.

Last year, they hoped to adopt a small girl from a London authority, but encountered the same scenario. Information had been collected on her when she was two months old, but it had not been updated for 11 months by the time they became involved in the process. Again, they were provided with little information and, although they asked for it to be disclosed, it was not. After three months, they were told by telephone that the adoption had gone ahead with other parents. They were not told why they did not get further through the process.

In her letter to me, my constituent said:

That is how that couple felt about their experiences of the adoption process. Their evidence is anecdotal, and I know that there is superb work on the subject, but it raises the fundamental issue of disclosure.

When the adoption process breaks down, the disruption that it causes is extremely painful for all concerned. One of the main reasons for disruption is the lack of information that is given to adoptive parents. When parents are in possession of sufficient information, they should feel no shame in saying that they do not have the necessary skills to make a good home for a child, especially if he or she is challenging, perhaps because of severe abuse or neglect. Different parents offer different skills. It is not fair to decide that parents cannot be good adoptive parents in the right circumstances.

I hope that my hon. Friend can clarify one matter. Clause 47(2) deals with the point at which information is imparted to the adoptive parent. The explanatory notes state that

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That is fair and fine, but it clearly states that the information is to be provided after the adoption order has been signed. What about parents who are in the process of adoption? What guarantees of disclosure do they have before they reach the final stage of being accepted as adoptive parents?

The Bill does not appear to cover that. It deals with the provision of information when orders have been signed, but my constituents did not get that far. Some parents are not given enough information to enable them to decide whether to adopt a child or, as with my constituents, do not have sufficient information to decide whether to withdraw from an adoption because of a child's challenging behaviour with which their family cannot cope.

In a poignant letter, my constituent described her bad experience of trying to adopt. She said that she and her husband were frightened of being identified as a problem family because they had asked for information. She said:

We do not want an adoption system that deters prospective adoptive parents. It has been pointed out several times that there are more children in care than there are prospective parents. We want to encourage parents to come forward; one way to do so is to ensure that those who do are provided with full, good-quality information on children who are available. We will then have an adoption system of which we can be proud.

7.31 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): The hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) is far too modest in likening herself to someone pushing a small trolley to the till. She made a valuable and useful contribution, based on her constituency experience.

I should like to praise the Minister who opened the debate for his tireless work in developing, first, the White Paper and the Bill. I do not detract at all from that by saying--this is the only partisan note in my speech--that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), I was disappointed that the Government's business managers did not give the Bill higher priority and that it was not in the Queen's Speech. Instead, it has been introduced on the eve of an election.

This is a good Bill, a tremendous amount of which has been welcomed by Members on both sides of the House. The points that I shall make in the next few minutes are designed to respond to the Minister's welcome and open statement that he would seek detailed contributions on the contents of the Bill. The spirit in which he has twice visited the all-party group of which I am co-chairman and the open-minded way in which he has been willing to discuss the broadest principles through to the smallest details is very welcome. On that note, I am sad that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) will retire from the House, not only because she has been my co-chairman since the group was founded, but because

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the House will be the poorer for losing her. However, she has an excellent successor in the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor).

I shall offer one more congratulation before getting on with my speech. The Adoption Forum has played an extraordinary role in co-ordinating many special interest groups and keeping the issue prominent in the media, and that should be minuted.

In his opening speech, the Minister made the strong point that the situation is intolerable. Outcomes for children in care are awful: 40 per cent. of prisoners under 21 spent part of their childhood in care; a quarter of all girls in care become pregnant; huge numbers of children who have been in care are out on the streets; a third of homeless people were in care; and a proportion of children in care become drug addicts and end up paying for their habit by prostitution. All of that has been touched on in our debate.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) is not in his place because he might have wished to respond to the point that I am about to make. He made a powerful speech in which he made a number of interesting points, but he asked one question that went to the heart of the debate. If we make mistakes on adoption and children's futures, what will we say to those children years later? I tell him and the House that he is right: one day we will have to justify every decision to those children--but how much more do we have to justify the failure to take decisions on adoption for a generation. That should shame every Member of the House.

I shall give a specific example. I shall come to a couple of constituency cases later, but the saddest direct experience that I have ever had of adoption was a delightful girl who--and this is relevant to the story--was Afro-Caribbean. She came to me as the result of a good scheme by Kent social services to give children in care an opportunity to visit an MP's office and help out for a day. I asked her whether she would have liked to have had the opportunity to be adopted. She said, "Yes, I would. I was taken into care when I was five, but my mum objected, so I wasn't considered for adoption." I asked her how many times she had seen her mother since the age of five. She answered, "Not at all for 10 years, and then only once." I am afraid that that single case epitomises why I am fed up with people putting the case for the rights of birth parents. I shall come to worse cases later, but that was my most direct experience of adoption.

I want to look at five areas where the Bill could be strengthened or, if regulations are introduced, elucidated. First, however, may I deal with one matter that runs across all those areas? One is always a little nervous about introducing political philosophy into a subject as practical as adoption, but as a strong conservative with a small "c", as well as a Conservative with a big "C", I believe that decisions are best made closest to the ground, wherever there is local accountability. I am deeply unhappy about the idea of vast amounts of hugely centralised measures--which began under the previous Government and have increased under the present one--for services and yardsticks that local government should provide. In most cases, local electors are the right people to decide that.

The key question is whether there is genuine local accountability. Of all the services that local authorities provide there is perhaps no more extreme example than children in care, for whom there is no local accountability.

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Children in care do not have votes; they do not figure in the minds of the vast majority of people, even those who would be concerned about them if they raised what was, or was not, going on. That is why I shall argue unashamedly that we need far stronger central controls and guidance. In seeking to strengthen the Bill's welcome provisions, I make no apology for that.

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