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Mr. Brazier: I echo my hon. Friend's comments. However, does he agree that, as a first step, responsibility should be taken away from the few very badly performing authorities and given to better ones so that we can at least try to make the existing structure work? I agree that the suggestion that my hon. Friend has outlined should be the last resort in the long term.

Mr. McLoughlin: I agree with my hon. Friend. The Minister explained in his opening speech that there are great differences between social services departments. Perhaps the problem is not the item that is highest on the agenda of politicians who run local authorities; performance often depends on officer practice and the way in which chief officers perceive the problem. However, if the Government take a far stronger line with authorities that fail to act, that will encourage social services departments to move adoption up the agenda.

While preparing for the debate, I looked at some of the websites that are devoted to adoption. I agree with the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme that none of them mentioned grandparents or other family members as foster or adoptive parents. Yet more and more grandparents are being asked to care permanently for their grandchildren.

In two cases in my constituency, the drug addiction of adult children has led directly to their parents having full-time care of their children. In each case, the natural mother's drug problems mean that she is unable and mostly unwilling to care for the children herself. However, the mothers cannot recognise that, and make repeated failed attempts to try again. Each time they try again, the grandchildren are further traumatised and the grandparents have to cope with the problems when the children return to them.

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Another lady, Mrs. P, has spoken to me about

She looks after her grandchildren in a Derbyshire village, yet the social services department involved is not that of Derbyshire but another department in a different part of the country.

In that case, the initial estimate of a residence order was approximately £1,200. So far, the family has spent £10,000 at the request of the social services department, which believes that the child should be kept from her mother. There are particulars of that horrendous case that I do not want to discuss in the Chamber. The stability of the child or the grandparents is not guaranteed. At any time, the mother can change her mind and the process has to begin again. An additional problem is the fact that the grandparents are not funded, whereas the mother is funded by legal aid.

The grandparents have to pay twice. They have to keep their grandchild safe legally at their own expense and they have to pay for her upkeep. They receive only child benefit. It costs them more to bring up their grandchildren than it did to bring up their own children. We must remember that they do not have the rest of their working lives to make up the cost, because they are already on fixed pensions. How many grandparents would find such costs prohibitive? I think that we can all understand that many would do so.

Mrs. P. has suggested that, when a child is deemed by social services to be at great risk from her natural mother, and social services have asked the grandparents to care for the child, the child should be eligible for legal aid. Mrs. P. told me that what her granddaughter needs most is stability, and that

In a letter to the relevant local authority, Mrs. P. wrote:

Those are two families who have put their lives on hold to take on the heavy responsibility of bringing up grandchildren who have been traumatised by their early upbringing. They have given up the hope of a relaxing retirement. There will be no extended Saga holiday for them. Instead, they have been plunged back into a world of disturbed nights and homework supervision, with argumentative teenagers to come. They do not resent that, although they regret the circumstances. They have given the children a fresh start. It is a huge commitment, and one that I fear many other families are called to undertake. It does not seem a lot to ask that society should offer those grandparents practical help and support. They are good people who have done the right thing, however difficult it has been, and they will continue to do so.

I hope that when the Bill goes into Committee, some of the many wide-ranging problems will be addressed. We cannot generalise about the 58,000 cases that we have talked about, because there are different circumstances behind each one. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) said earlier, if we get the Bill right, it might cost us in the short term, but the long-term benefits for our country and our society will be great.

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8.22 pm

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): I apologise to those right hon. and hon. Members who spoke earlier and whose contributions I missed because I had to leave the Chamber for more than an hour because of a previous appointment.

I listened with interest, however, to my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). I am pleased that the Bill has the support of all parties, because if we could not join together to meet the needs of vulnerable children, we really ought not to be in this place.

I declare an interest as someone who formerly sat on an adoption panel, and I listened with interest to people's observations on the adoption process. For seven years, I sat on Lancashire county council's adoption panel, and I saw the good parts of the service and the rather less good parts. One thing that I saw was how hard many social workers worked to help to find families for children in the care of the local authority.

I also saw many detailed reports produced on prospective adoptive parents. Sometimes, prospective adoptive parents were concerned about those very details, and about the fact that social workers asked what they sometimes saw as intrusive questions. But those questions were asked so that the social workers could, in all confidence, recommend to us on the adoption panel that the prospective adopters could care for the kinds of children who were being presented for adoption.

As other hon. Members have said, it is no longer chiefly babies who are presented for adoption. We now deal mainly with older children, who bring with them the baggage of their backgrounds, some of which is dreadful. Adoptive parents need to be warned of that. They also need particular skills to cope with those damaged children. It is not just a question of caring for bright, shiny little children who will be the apple of their eye. These are children who will present problems, and adopters need to be forewarned, forearmed and prepared for that.

As several hon. Members mentioned, prospective adoptive parents need as much information about children as they can get. They need it to prepare themselves for the task ahead and to help them prepare the children. I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who mentioned open adoption. I hope that when the Bill is referred to the special Select Committee, we shall consider that issue in more detail, because there are certainly pros and cons.

One of the disadvantages is that prospective adopters can be put off if they feel that they have either to maintain a link with the birth parents or to share fairly detailed information with the child about his or her birth parents. I have seen cases in which it worked very well. I have seen adopted children who had a recollection of their birth parents. Working with their adoptive parents, they developed life story books so that they did not feel abandoned by their birth parents. It was explained to them that their birth parents had had problems, and that a stage may have been reached when the birth family could no longer look after them. It was also explained that that did not necessarily mean that the birth family did not care for them.

Adoptive parents can work with a child and give a child a sense of identity, as well as an identity within the new family. However, that is a difficult balance to strike.

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I have spoken to adoptive parents as well as to people who have been adopted, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider the issues of sharing information with prospective adopters before adoption, of working with adoptive parents in the initial stages of adoption, and of examining the implication of open adoption and whose best interest it is in. That might be ungrammatical.

We are here to put the needs of the child first. For many children, having a knowledge of their background that can be developed as they grow older, with more information given to them up to adulthood, will be in their best interest. For some children, however, it will not be in their best interest, so we must always consider the needs of the child and not start the process with hard-and-fast views on what is right and wrong. What is right for me might not be right for other hon. Members, and what is right for one child might not be right for another. Let us, therefore, always remember to put the needs of the children first.

In putting the needs of the children first, I especially welcome the speeding up of procedures proposed in the Bill. When I was a member of an adoption panel, I found the length of time that it took to get the child to us and make a match with prospective adopters desperately frustrating. Often, the birth family wanted the child back, so social workers would go through the process of integrating the child back into the family and supporting the placement only for it to break down, which meant taking the child back into care or arranging a placement with another foster family that the child did not know and perhaps supporting the natural parents again. It went on and on.

I know of babies who would have been snapped up, but, on reaching five, six or seven, they had been damaged by constant moves and were no longer the attractive children who would have been chosen by many prospective adopters. We cannot afford to allow that to continue. Obviously, a balance must be struck between the needs of the natural family, the needs of prospective adopters and adoptive parents and, above all, the needs of the child. However, the child should not be a counter on a board to be passed round to different adults who all want to share him or her for different reasons; that would mean that the needs of the child were not central. Therefore, I especially welcome the fact that we are considering speeding up that procedure not only because it will help children to settle more quickly in a permanent home, but because of my concern for some foster carers.

I have met foster carers who were assessed as being short-term carers and given a child to look after for perhaps two, three or six months only for that child to be with them two years later. By then, they had become attached to the child. I have also met foster carers who were given the rare baby who came up for adoption. They watched the baby grow into a toddler. Two years earlier, they too had been assessed as short-term foster carers. However, they had invested of themselves emotionally in the child and wanted to be considered as prospective adopters, but oh dearie me, they had originally been assessed as short-term carers, so they could not possibly become long-term foster carers or prospective adopters.

It is in the best interests of nobody to have hard and fast rules, so in speeding up the process we must avoid the heartache that so many foster parents encounter in taking on the care of a child for what they believe to be the short term only to find themselves making a

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long-term emotional investment. Speeding up the process can achieve benefits all round: it is not in the best interests of the natural parents to argue constantly over a child, nor is that in the interests of the child or the foster carers.

Like the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), I want to mention grandparents and the wider family. We must be aware of the fact that family relationships are much more complex than in the past. I know of court cases involving perhaps six or seven adults--blood relatives of the child--with an interest in that child's future. They all turned up for their day in court and argued, so if the new placement order can help with that process, I will very much welcome it.

I hope that we consider the wider family as well as the birth parents in our debates on the placement order because, all too often, grandparents come to see me because the relationship of their son or daughter has broken down and they have lost touch with their grandchildren. For example, a parent may be unable to continue caring for a child, who may enter the care system, and grandparents feel that the system, which should be caring for that child, puts them at one remove from it.

Many grandparents can play a positive role in the care of their grandchildren and we must always bear in mind the fact that the needs of the child must come first. Many prospective adoptive parents have approached me to say, "I have a right to have a child. You should get me a child." I have had to explain that they are offering a service to the child. The child deserves the family--the best possible family that we can provide--and we must always consider the matter from that perspective.

In recruiting prospective adoptive parents, I hope that we involve people who understand that their role will be to nurture and look after the child, providing the love that the birth family may not have offered. They are privileged to be able to do that.

Many adoptive parents do an excellent job. I praise adoptive parents and foster carers in the community who do a remarkable job caring for children, often from dreadful backgrounds.

I welcome the establishment of a national register. The lack of a register was an impediment to placing children and matching a child's background and needs. When I was on Lancashire county council, we did not always have a pool of prospective adoptive parents to meet every child's needs. It will help us better to match children to prospective adopters and speed up the process if we can consult a national register.

I also welcome the proposals on international adoption. I recall a sad case of prospective adopters who tried to adopt a little girl from a Romanian orphanage. Like many of us, they watched the television when the orphanages were opened up to the gaze of the western European media, and they saw with horror the circumstances in which children were living. They went to Romania and adopted the little girl. Prospective adopters in this country may not always be given adequate information about the children they are adopting, but that problem is writ large in the international adoption process. In spite of the hard work that those prospective parents put in, the adoption placement failed.

I hope that the process for approving prospective adopters for international adoption will ensure that they understand the special problems that they will face in

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adopting a child from another country and culture who speaks another language. I know of other placements that have worked because of the commitment of the adoptive parents, who have given their all to provide a happy home for the child.

I was pleased to hear the Minister give a commitment to all children in care. Not all children in care could or should be adopted. It is not the right answer for some children. The special guardianship orders are an interesting innovation. I look forward to hearing more about that scheme, because it will be an answer for some of these children.

We must recognise the hard work of social care staff in the residential sector. We often hear the bad stories--the reports on tragedies. I visit residential homes for children, and I see the hard work of staff in those homes, who care for young people with a variety of problems. We should applaud the good work that takes place. By putting the needs of young people in care first, we can decide whether fostering, adoption or residential care is the right answer.

We should listen to children in the care system, many of whom are older. They have a voice and they want it to be heard. I have had meetings with them, and they speak their minds loudly. Young adolescents in residential care tell me in no uncertain terms that in no way do they want to be adopted. They have had dreadful experiences of care in so-called families, and they do not want that. They want to remain in a well-run residential setting, and good luck to them. We should listen to children and hear what they have to say.

I welcome this legislation. Many of us, and many members of the public, have been calling for this measure for a long time. It is in the best interests of children, prospective adopters and foster carers. I wish it all speed through the legislative process.

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