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9.3 pm

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): I welcome the Bill and any improvements that it can make for children who are not loved or wanted. While young girls, in particular, decide whether they are capable of looking after children or want to do so, the children are becoming older and more difficult to adopt.

I am sorry that I have come late to the debate. I was giving an address this morning at a service in Keighley celebrating the contributions to society by older people. Time and again, the speakers mentioned how important the contributions of older people are. In my view, the most important contribution that an older person can make is to be a grandparent. The hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), who has now left the Chamber, spoke at length about grandparents and their capacity to adopt, foster or act as guardians.

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When I was first elected, one of the first organisations with which I worked a great deal was Keighley Families Against Drugs. Its members are, to a woman, women; I do not know why dads do not get involved, but those brave women take on the hardship of caring for and supporting daughters and sons who are on hard drugs. Many of them have come to me to seek help in gaining financial support from the local authority, a problem of which I have become increasingly aware. Their daughters may, after a while, have become totally incapable of looking after their children. Social services may agree that that is so, but, because the law is as it is, there seems to be little money in the kitty to help the grandparents.

Those grandparents have told me of their trauma and constant anxiety that the child may be taken into care or returned to her or his mother. They are worried not so much about their daughters as about a live-in boy friend, uncle or whoever he is, who is also on hard drugs and sometimes a pimp or a drug pusher. That is a totally unsuitable atmosphere in which to bring up a child. Those grandparents offer their grandchildren a reasonable life, but it is difficult at my age--61--to take care of grandchildren full time. I have never had to do that, but I had three of my grandsons for just three hours last night, and, without making light of the difficulties, I have to say that I was absolutely exhausted.

In addition, financial hardships make the situation awful for the worried grandparents. They may still work for a meagre wage that has to be spread between their own rent and needs and the needs of their grandchildren. Often, money goes to the daughter, but is lost to drugs without finding its way to the grandchildren. When such expensive items as shoes are needed, the grandparents often have to find the money out of a small wage or even a pension.

Another anxiety arises out of political correctitude, and I hope that the Bill will address it. I agree that we must try to match children for adoption with prospective adopters of the same ethnic background, but that can be taken too far if it means that a child of mixed race, of Asian background or who is black fails to be adopted simply because no identically matching adoptive parents can be found.

I speak from experience: three of my grandchildren are a quarter Irish and three of them are half Asian. I do not think that the three who are half Asian have noticed that I am a different colour from them. I am sure that they have not noticed that their other two grandparents are a different colour, too, or that we are at all different. We are just one family to them; we are Grandma and Grandpa Bains and Grandma Cryer.

We need to allow for children who, for whatever reason, are difficult to adopt. I understand that to some extent: in Keighley, my Asian community tends to adopt within the family. The extended family usually takes on a child who is left for whatever reason. If, however, the extended family breaks down, there is not much tradition in that community of adopting or fostering. Social services encourage it, and a few Asian women have begun fostering and do a good job, but there is no such tradition in the community. We should not allow babies and children to languish in care just because we cannot match their ethnicity identically with that of adoptive parents.

Finally, I touch on the debate that has arisen in recent months about the terribly high rate of teenage pregnancy--ours compares most unfavourably with that

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of other European countries. It is difficult for a very young teenage girl to cope with a baby unless she can stay with her parents and have their support--another useful role for grandparents. However, if a girl is not given that support--if she is thrown out--it is unlikely that her baby will be given a satisfactory start in life. I do not say that we should remove babies from such mothers, but, at the first indication that the mother cannot cope--when social services are asked to take the child into care--we should rapidly look for adoptive parents.

In Keighley, young girls think it is wonderful to have a baby at first. Often, they come from fairly deprived backgrounds and have not known much love and affection, so their baby--that small person--is for them alone; it is the first time that they have been given undivided attention. That is all right for a while, but sadly, when a new boy friend comes on the scene, the baby is less attractive--perhaps the boy friend does not want the baby. I hope that the measure will encourage social services to keep a more careful eye on such very young mothers to ensure that they do not have a ping-pong relationship with their babies--baby taken into care; the mother wants him back; he is taken back into care; mother wants him back again--every time there is a new boy friend.

That may seem harsh, but I do not want to be harsh because I know how difficult it is to bring up children. However, because we allow young girls to keep their babies--despite the fact that the child keeps being taken into care--when clearly the girls do not know what they want from those relationships, the children are brought up going backwards and forwards between care and home. That becomes a vicious circle. Children brought up in that way become victims of that circle and frequently become teenage mothers themselves.

The Bill could break that vicious circle by making it easier for social services to intervene. I wish the Bill well. I hope that it succeeds where previous measures have failed--in upholding the rights of babies and children and in protecting them from the problems that we all come across in our advice surgeries.

9.13 pm

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): I intend to ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), each have a good 20 minutes for their responses. The debate has been thoughtful, so it is right and proper that they have a decent opportunity to respond.

It is a great privilege to follow the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) whose speech was a model among all the fine speeches that we have heard this evening. She talked a great deal of common sense. It was a privilege to hear her comments--as it was to hear so much of what has been said during the debate, starting with the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton).

In his opening remarks, the Minister was honest about the inadequacies of current legislation. He gave us helpful indications as to how the Government intend to proceed with the Bill. The measure probably exists only because of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman)--the Second Reading of her Adoption Bill will be on Friday.

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The timing of the two Bills is rather more than a coincidence--there seems to be some dissent among Members on the Front Benches as to that--but never mind, because the Bill is right.

Today's debate will send the wider world a wholly bipartisan message from the Chamber about the importance of the issues with which it deals--as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) noted. My hon. Friend drew attention to the relative lack of interest in the debate--sadly. It is a great shame that a debate has been going on in another place on a much less important issue--foxhunting--where decisions have now been taken. The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) and I have also been involved in that issue as joint chairmen of the Middle Way Group. However, we have chosen to spend most of our time listening to the debate in this Chamber because the issues are of much greater importance.

I also want to pay tribute to the Chairman of the Health Select Committee, the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), in his brief and exceptional absence from the Chamber. He made a thoughtful contribution and, by staying to listen to so many speeches, has been a model parliamentarian. That is a compliment to him.

My main reason for speaking is to raise a constituency interest. A heartbreaking case was brought to my attention in November 1999 when I received correspondence from an infertile couple who had tried to get fertility treatment. The postcode lottery means that it is difficult to obtain such treatment in Worcestershire, so they settled on adoption and told me some of the problems that they had encountered.

The couple wrote to the Secretary of State on 25 November 1999. I finally wheedled out a reply on 26 May 2000 which dealt with some of the issues that they had confronted. I then saw them in my surgery to discuss their response. They remain concerned about the obstacles faced by people who want to adopt. Although there is a good and satisfactory framework of legislation and financial support for single mothers and their children, they do not think that a similar framework is in place for adoptive parents.

I hope that the special Select Committee will consider that issue. The couple are especially concerned about maternity benefits. Adopting is an expensive process and the benefits should not apply just because of biological considerations--they should be available for people who wish to adopt because they need time off work, often to settle difficult children. Conventional wisdom dictates that we are talking about three and four-month-old babies, but we are not. Children who are adopted often need a huge emotional input. Parents in full-time work often want to make a strong investment in the child in the early stages of the adoption process, but they are prevented from doing so.

I am delighted to say that that couple have been approved for adoption, having abandoned their bid for a biological child through fertility treatment. I can vouch for the fact that they are delightful, and it was a great privilege to meet them. Sadly, there are no suitable children in Worcestershire for them to adopt. However, there are across the border in Gloucestershire, but cross-border adoptions are not working in our part of the world. They know that there are children for them to adopt in Gloucestershire, but that is not possible. They

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remain anxious and eager to adopt. They asked me to tell the Minister how much they welcome the national register because that will help to address the problem and stop other parents going through the same anguish.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, I talked to my county council about its approach to the Bill, which it welcomes. It is delighted that the Government have made progress on the issue. However, it is worried that social services are often the only body that is blamed for the delay in adoption. The Government are right to emphasise, as they did in their 1998 circular, the need to avoid delay and to put the child's requirements at the centre of the process. Legal processes can hold up adoption as much as any decisions taken by social services. The council wants me to emphasise that problem and hopes that the Bill will address it.

The Downing street website contains a report of an unusually sensitive briefing by the Prime Minister's official spokesman in February 2000, although he got characteristically robust towards the end of his comments. The report says:

the Prime Minister's official spokesman--

He is right--it does mean use of public money. We think that we get an unfair deal in Worcestershire when it comes to our share of the nation's resources for social services. Money for adoption has to compete with other priorities, especially for the elderly. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden mentioned ring fencing, and he could have a powerful point.

We have to give careful consideration to the nature of adoptive parents, such as whether they are married. I come from a single-parent family. My father died when I was eight and my mother brought me up. I was cared for exceptionally well by my mother, but I do not doubt that I would have been cared for even better if I had had a father or a male role model as well. Frankly, it is generally better if that is a married arrangement; I hope that issue will be looked at too.

Worcestershire county council conducts the adoption process with great skill and thought. I want to endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West said about material considerations. In its documentation, Worcestershire county council tells prospective parents:

The Bill seeks to give that to many children who desperately need it.

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