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8.40 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): This is probably the first time since 1 May 1997 that I have been able to stand up and welcome a piece of legislation promoted by the present Government. I have called the Government all sorts of things, and I regard most of their legislation as a load of old rubbish; but I pay tribute to the Ministers who have been involved with this Bill.

In my view, this has been a splendid debate. The House is probably at its best during such debates. It is noticeable and sad, however, that our Benches are not exactly heaving. I am not making a partisan point: throughout the House, we do not see the huge number of Members whom it would be nice to see. Some years ago, when we debated surrogacy--another important matter--there was a similar turnout.

I entirely understand the feelings of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). I had the honour of promoting a private Member's Bill last year--goodness knows how we managed to get it through the House, but we did somehow--in dramatic circumstances. My hon. Friend is probably entitled to feel a bit of chagrin about the way in which matters have proceeded. Nevertheless, I welcome the Bill on the basis of its merits.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) for his magnificent efforts, and to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme

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(Mrs. Golding), who has also done a magnificent job in pioneering the recognition of children's rights in this context. I am very sorry to learn that she is retiring. I do not know what she intends to do if she really is going to retire, but I think any number of us believe that she could start a new career as a tipster--and I should be more than happy to back her.

I pay tribute to all members of the all-party group. I also pay special tribute to the lady mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury, who has worked so hard in directing us towards this Bill. It is a huge Bill, and I am not volunteering to serve on the Select Committee, but I think that it is the right way for the Government to proceed.

I do not wish to sound sanctimonious. We love our children, but we do not necessarily like them. Children in care, however, are often neither liked nor loved. We should bear in mind that 67 per cent. of looked-after children have mental health problems of some kind, while 30 per cent. have statements of educational need; between 2 and 3 per cent. of other children have statements. Seventy per cent. of young people leaving care have gained no GCSEs or general national vocational qualifications, and 25 per cent. of looked-after children aged between 14 and 16 do not attend school regularly. Between 14 and 25 per cent. of young women leaving care are pregnant or have a child; in the general population, the figure is only 3 per cent. Those who have been looked after are 60 times more likely to be homeless than members of the general population. Perhaps most tragically of all, 39 per cent. of male prisoners under 21 have been looked after. A huge number of children need our help.

I and other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury, have strong views on abortion. When we debate the matter on the Floor of the House, the slogan is "Every child a wanted child." People like me owe it to others who may take a different view to work together on this important Bill, so I hope that, whatever happens in the general election, the Government of the day will take the matter forward.

I thought that I would contact my local authority, Southend, to find out what it felt about the Bill, knowing that the Minister of State also had some interest in that. It welcomes it. It thinks that it fits in well with the Children Act, but it has asked me to raise some points.

One provision deals with adopted children and adoptive parents having the right to request a formal assessment of their need for post-adoption support. My local authority feels that it is an excellent proposal. It makes explicit the duty of local authorities to offer any necessary support after the adoption order is made. The local authority feels that that, in itself, is likely to reduce post-adoption breakdowns. However, rightly, from a local authority point of view, it believes that it will have substantial resource implications and hopes that the Government will have some good news in that regard.

The Bill proposes an independent review mechanism in relation to the assessment of prospective adopters. Southend council feels that prospective adopters already have access to local authority complaint schemes. It awaits information on how the proposed process will operate.

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In principle, local authorities are committed to transparency in assessment and decision-making processes. I am sure that they will welcome the proposal.

The Bill then reaffirms the illegality of anyone other than adoption agencies advertising children for adoption. I am called a bit of a dinosaur. With modern technology, everyone is e-mailing each other on the web, but even the most modern parliamentarians have been appalled at what has gone on recently with the tacky buying and selling of children. If the measure stops all that, local authorities such as Southend will welcome it. However, the council feels that new ways of advertising for would-be adopters need to be found. Local authority and other adoption agencies need assistance from the Government in finding other sources. Southend council feels that that will be essential if the Government's targets are to be met.

I suppose that the core of the Bill is the establishment of a national register allowing speedier matching of approved prospective adopters and children awaiting adoption. Again, Southend council welcomes that. It believes that it will help adoption agencies considerably in their work, especially in relation to children from minority ethnic backgrounds and those who have special needs. Again, it hopes that the Government will adequately resource it. Current opportunities for secure internet access should result in a largely electronic exchange between the national register and adoption agencies, so that information can be quickly accessed and acted upon. I hope that that will happen.

I am proud to say that Southend council was one step ahead of the Government. We joined Thurrock and Havering to establish a successful adoption consortium some two years ago. The three local authorities had already anticipated the proposed register. They already share information and resources to improve the matching of potential adopters with children.

The next part of the Bill deals with targets. Privately--although I suppose that this is public, really--I can tell the House that I am sick to death of targets, which are beginning to get just a bit out of hand. Governments set themselves targets, but Members of Parliament come and go. Who on earth will hold Governments to account on those targets? Targets sound marvellous, but I am beginning to become a little sceptical of them.

Southend council is also becoming a little sceptical. It feels that the target to increase by 40 per cent. the number of adoptions of children in public care by 2004-05 is somewhat optimistic. Although the council hopes that that objective can be achieved, it feels that it is very optimistic. One of the biggest obstacles in achieving the objective is the shortage of would-be adopters for older children and children with special needs. Individual local authority adoption agencies have relatively little control over that aspect of the process and feel that an attempt should be made to encourage and enhance adoption of those children.

Mr. Brazier: When one considers differences in practice and the fact that the best three or four performers achieve adoption rates that are 10 times better than those of agencies in the bottom decile, one must surely agree that it is possible to achieve an increase of 40 per cent. or

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more. Indeed, a 40 per cent. increase would leave us just below the rate in America, which has a higher proportion of children with difficulties.

Mr. Amess: My hon. Friend seems to think that Southend council should perhaps revise its criticism of the 40 per cent. target.

Mr. Hutton: I confirm the point made by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) may like to know that, in the past two years, adoptions in England increased by about 25 per cent. I therefore think that a target of a 40 per cent. increase in the next three years is well within our range.

Mr. Amess: I welcome that instant reply from the Minister, with which the local authority will undoubtedly be delighted. I also agree that we must be able to hit a 40 per cent. target if a 25 per cent. target was achieved last year. I suspect that the council was speaking about older children who, as the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) said, are perhaps not quite so attractive for fostering and adoption.

Southend council is very keen to have improved incentives, and it believes that there should be a public awareness campaign on adoption. I am not sure whether the Minister mentioned the sums available for a public awareness programme, but I hope that such funding will be made available. All over the place, however, we are seeing the ridiculous posters being put up by all the parties. Although I say all sorts of things in private about politicians--particularly about Labour Members, but even about one or two Conservative Members--I do not think that those posters should be personalised, as the current ones are. It would be so much better if all the parties spent money on posters encouraging people to foster and adopt.

Southend council believes that a much higher national profile should be given to adoption. It says that, rather than rigid targets, it would prefer to have a benchmark that requires under-performing local authorities to analyse the reasons for their performance and to take the necessary action. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has often mentioned that issue.

Southend local authority is very concerned about the adoption allowance--an issue on which some of my constituents wrote to me after the Government announced the Bill. Clause 3(8)(b) mentions "other services", including financial support. My council is unclear whether the provision will cover improvements to the current adoption allowance system. In their White Paper on adoption, the Government indicated that they would improve the adoption allowance system, but I think that that objective has yet to be clearly stated in the Bill.

Every local authority devises its own adoption allowance policy and rate. That gives rise to widely different schemes, with the danger of a postcode lottery. As the Department of Social Security is transferring benefit payments to care leavers to local authorities, will the Government consider making adoption allowances a national payment, paid through the DSS? I am advised that the numbers are relatively small.

The current excitement and interest--I am not sure that we have excited much interest in the House tonight, but the quality is here--must not be allowed to eclipse the

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valid role of fostering for the many children for whom adoption is not appropriate, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood.

I received a letter this morning from a constituent who had better remain anonymous, saying that the Inland Revenue wants to apply, across the board to all carers, the minimum rates that the National Foster Care Association says should be paid to foster carers to cover the cost of taking the child into their home. Any income that carers receive above those minimum rates will apparently be liable to tax. My constituent feels that that will hit most carers extremely hard, as they are generally paid a more realistic rate than that suggested by the NFCA. Apparently, the Inland Revenue says that these are interim arrangements, so the final proposal could be even worse. My constituent expressed a worry that people might be put off fostering. Perhaps the Minister will get a Treasury Minister to write to me about that.

Southend council feels that when prospective adopters are bought from one adoption agency by another that has a suitable child, a standard inter-agency fee system should be used. Abandoning such an approach in favour of a--gulp--free market approach, under which payments are negotiated case by case, would be disastrous. I know that new Labour embraces the free market, but perhaps it would not be a good idea to go down that road in this case.

I am doing some voluntary work for Barnardos. We have all heard some special pleading from any number of organisations, and it is my privilege tonight to do some special pleading for Barnardos, which we all recognise is a wonderful organisation. It welcomes the Bill, and especially how it fits in with the Children Act 1989. It is particularly pleased that consideration is to be given to the child's religious persuasion, racial origin, and cultural and linguistic background. It is very pleased with the duty on local authorities to publish a plan for the provision of adoption services. It welcomes, too, the new provisions for special guardianship, which could provide a real alternative for children for whom adoption would not be appropriate.

Barnardos also has some constructive criticisms to make. It believes that the reference to financial support is a totally inadequate recognition of the role that adoption allowances could play in widening the pool of families able to consider adopting. Barnardos has campaigned for some time for a review of the allowance system. It believes that the current system is failing to meet the aim of facilitating adoption for more children.

As an agency placing children whom local authorities consider hard to place, Barnardos has been dismayed by how few of those children qualify for an adoption allowance. It says that only 15 out of 52 qualified in 1998-99, and 16 out of 68 last year. It is unable to advise families on what financial support they might receive, as it varies so much from one local authority to another. I hope that the Government will take seriously Barnardos' view on the matter.

Barnardos also points out that, if the Government are serious--which I think they are--about significantly increasing the number of families seeking to adopt, that will mean attracting a wider range of families. Recent research by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering suggests that parents, single applicants and families on low incomes are under-represented among

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approved adopters. Having come from the east end, I understand that children are expensive, particularly when it comes to buying shoes. However, to write off people on low incomes as prospective adopters is a great insult. I am not saying that the Government will do that, but I hope that they will bear that in mind.

Barnardos is also concerned at the implications of clause 9, which appears to provide for a right of independent appeal against the determinations of an adoption agency. It is unclear what is meant by determinations as opposed to decisions, and whether the right of appeal will be available only to adoptive applicants. Its concern is that covering the cost of an appeal could be crippling for small voluntary agencies, and is not consistent with policy in other sectors. For example, the right to independent review is well established in the financial services industry, but insurance companies, despite having vastly superior resources to any voluntary adoption agency, are not expected to meet the direct costs of an individual policyholder's appeal.

Finally, Barnardos says that the right balance should be struck between the conflicting rights of children and their birth parents. That is not an easy task, but Barnardos believes that in attempting to address concerns that some children might be denied the security of an alternative home because of a reluctance to act against the wishes of parents, the Bill may be steering too far in the opposite direction. It is not convinced that the grounds for dispensing with parental consent under clause 44(2)(a) are sufficiently rigorous to ensure that such action will be taken only when overriding a parent's right to family life can clearly be justified.

I congratulate the Government on bringing forward the Bill. My goodness, I can hardly believe that I said that. The House should be united on this issue and, although there have been differences in emphasis, I think that by and large we are. It is no good people with strong views on abortion, like myself, not encouraging the adoption route.

When we have difficulty getting our children to bed of an evening, we make all sorts of threats to them, in a joking way. My children are jolly lucky as, no doubt, are the children of all right hon. and hon. Members. However, 58,000 children--a huge number--are not loved and not necessarily liked. I believe that the Bill could change all that.

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