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9.20 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) outlined substantially our support for the Bill and how constructively we intend to improve it in Committee. When she related the recent history of events, however, Government Members showed an extraordinary measure of sensitivity; one might even say that they were touchy.

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I do not want to dwell on that because we have had a good debate and I want to concentrate on the areas on which we agree. The Minister of State spoke for 52 minutes, holding my attention throughout his excellent exposition of the Bill. From his experience in Committee, he will know that that is an achievement, as I tend to have momentary lapses of attention, which can be prolonged at times. However, he gave an excellent exposition of the Bill, and that standard continued throughout this evening's proceedings.

The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) commended the previous Conservative Administration for the Children Act 1989 and the constructive way in which the then Minister, David Mellor, proceeded in Committee. We all hope and pray that the Minister of State will have the opportunity to emulate Mr. Mellor and that the special Select Committee will proceed.

The hon. Member for Wakefield gave us the benefit of his great professional experience in these matters over many years and stressed that it was a question of emphasis--not a question of black and white, but of shades of grey. I agree, although my shade of grey is slightly different from the hon. Gentleman's. His point about Churches was answered properly by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden in an intervention. The hon. Gentleman was also concerned about the political issues that arise. Clause 1, which makes it clear that the interests of the child are paramount, provides a perfect safeguard against that politicisation.

The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) spoke about the need for balance and, early in the debate, raised the issue of grandparents, which was developed later; I shall come on to that. She said that there should be an assessment of needs, particularly in mental health, and mentioned finance.

The hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) spoke with quiet passion, born of her own experience, which carries great weight. She, too, stressed the need for concern about the child, for the child's welfare to be paramount and for public engagement and involvement, which would be promoted by a sense of openness. I do not always agree with her, but I do so this evening to a surprising degree. I agree entirely about the importance of an independent review mechanism. The hon. Lady also said that it is crucial to track children through the system. She said that she came with a shopping list, but I thought that it was a commendable list. She said that a funding gap had to be addressed and that there was a desperate need for a fast-track process for pre-school children and for local authority counselling of women with unwanted pregnancies.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) gave the Bill what he called an incautious welcome. He gave us an insight into the awful prospects that institutional care often involves for many children. With that, he brought back what I suppose psychologists call retrieved memory.

I had sat through the debate feeling somewhat inadequate--so many hon. Members had spoken from their great experience of the issues. It was only when my right hon. Friend described care that I suddenly remembered--I retrieved the memory--that I had some limited experience of it. I do not know how I had managed to sublimate the memory--perhaps it was so awful. I spent a year between school and university in an

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institutional care home. It was not a local authority home, but a private home. The experience was pretty awful. We were all untrained. Some of my colleagues were unstable, and many were quite uncouth. We must do a great deal to make sure that we raise the standards and the status of those who carry out that vital work with so many of our children.

The hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) was pleased by the speed with which matters had moved from the White Paper to the Bill. She came to the debate with what she called an express basket, but her contribution was weighty because it was based on the experience of constituents. That is important for much of the work that we do. It anchors us in the reality that ordinary constituents face. She spoke of the need for full information as a means of encouraging prospective adoptive parents to come forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) has an enormous track record. I pay tribute to the work that he has done on the subject. He thanked the Minister for his tireless work on the White Paper and the Bill, and spoke of some of the awful outcomes of our care system. He mentioned, for example, that 40 per cent. of prisoners under 21 have emerged from the care system. He gave us an insight into some harrowing cases, which point to the tyranny that birth parents can sometimes exercise over the prospective life chances of their own children.

My hon. Friend was concerned about the provision to take account of religious backgrounds. I am sure that the Committee will return to the topic at some length. He also raised the important point that foster parents are often not allowed to adopt. That is crucial. How can we honestly expect those parents to put in such an investment of time, effort and, yes, money without any expectation that they might have possession? People may deprecate that, but it is a genuine human emotion, which cannot just be wished away.

The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), who also has an enormous track record on the subject, muttered under her breath that she was planning to go fishing. Debates such as this, and the House in general, will be much the worse for her having gone fishing. She brings a great deal of common sense and wisdom to our proceedings. She discussed difficult cases, and spoke of the levels of vetting and bureaucracy that need to be addressed. She also dealt with the need for international agreements and the role of the wider family, particularly that of grandparents.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) expanded that point with great care and concern. He spoke of the iniquitous financial position of many grandparents, with the huge costs that they face, sometimes including legal costs, and the fact that they receive only child benefit. My hon. Friend's speech was a tribute to foster and adoptive parents. He drew attention to the Gillings report, and focused our minds on the times when social services get it right and do things well. That is an important consideration.

The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) told us that she had sat on an adoption panel for seven years. She brought great experience and weight to her speech as a consequence of that experience. She spoke of the need for information about damaged children to be made available as a means of giving

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adoptive parents an inkling of what they are letting themselves in for, and of ensuring that they have the skills to deal with the situations in which they will find themselves. She spoke of a need for case-by-case flexibility focused on the needs of the child, and of her frustration at the time that many adoptions have taken.

The hon. Lady was also concerned about the birth family wanting the child back and having to re-initiate proceedings. I hope that the Bill's provisions will address that enormous problem. Babies who could have been snapped up, she said, were unadoptable years later. That is a tragedy. Adoption delayed is often adoption denied. It is vital that our children have the chance of a normal family life.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) said that this was a splendid debate and, in a first in this Chamber, congratulated the Government on introducing the measure. He paid gracious tributes to all members of the all-party group on adoption. He said that the Bill was huge, and I notice that he significantly did not volunteer to serve on the special Select Committee.

My hon. Friend said that children in care were neither liked nor loved, and there is much truth in what he said. He gave a raft of statistics to bear that out. He pointed out that his local authority welcomed the Bill and, although it raised concerns, it was in some respects ahead of the Government in its reaction to the situation. He also made some special pleading on behalf of Barnardos in respect of allowances.

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) spoke late in the debate but nevertheless made a measured and welcome contribution, again reinforcing the importance of the role of grandparents, particularly with reference to her experience of Keighley Families Against Drugs. She drew on her experience of managing her grandchildren, which is an entirely valid way of measuring our experience and participation in these debates. She spoke with common sense, and that was most welcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) made a short and pithy speech, stressing the importance of a bi-partisan approach and reinforcing our deliberations with the importance of a constituency case, which concerned the question of cross-county adoption and the important contribution that a national register will make to that process.

Adopted children are harder to rear than natural children, but adoptive parents are more resourceful than natural parents. They are, after all, the only parents who have to prove their ability to be good parents before undertaking the task. As I have said, it is reasonable to expect full parental involvement and investment, but not without satisfying that deeply held human desire for parental possession. This Bill, with its aim of increasing the number of adoptions and tackling the frustration and delays, which so many Members described as legion, is therefore welcome.

The lesson that we have learned is that adoption works. When considering how it works, we must not measure it against the ideal biological family. We must consider it against the reality that the child who is adopted would otherwise have experienced. Some have developed a mentality of taking no chances and search for the ideal family. There is no such thing as the ideal family, just as there is no such thing as the ideal child. One hundred per cent. expectation of success is monstrous. There is no

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such success in my family, never mind in other ones. That is where I differed in my emphasis, in my shade of grey, from the hon. Member for Wakefield. People who speak about the risks of adoption often fail to take enough account of the countervailing risks of keeping children in long-term care. Adoption is a success story. We have heard statistics about the relatively small number of adoptions that break up, but family restitutions have a much higher failure rate.

I believe that the human being has a tremendous ability to overcome early disadvantage. However, the later the placement, the more likely it is that problems will develop. In that respect, adoption delayed can be adoption denied. One of the most groundbreaking findings to emerge from adoption research is the high level of attachment that can exist even in respect of very late adoptions. In so far as any solution works, the only replacement for a family in bringing up a traumatised child until adulthood is a substitute family. Adopted children end up with fewer problems than non-adopted children from similar circumstances.

The available alternatives are much less suitable. We heard about the failure of local authorities to protect children from abuse, whether it is sexual, physical or otherwise. We know that children in care are more prone to psychiatric disorders, that their education and health suffer and that they graduate from care lacking in some of the most basic life skills. We are also aware that young people and young adults in care are deprived of the kin support systems that families provide. Of course, families are concerned about where their children are and keep track of them. One can go back to one's family as a young adult for love, for advice and, yes, for money. The state cannot take on that role in the institutional care system. Children in care are more likely to be unemployed and pregnant under age and to suffer a series of disadvantages because they have not been given the chance of adoption.

I believe that adoption must be considered against the possibility of family restoration, in pursuit of which social workers have often sought to enter a partnership with parents to provide a form of shared care whereby the local authority provides institutional or foster placement while the family is under stress. Perhaps that is what the hon. Member for Wakefield meant when he spoke of intensive support. Such care is an entirely proper consideration, but we must take into account what hon. Members have said and not allow parents to be pushed into keeping their children when they have rejected them. We should remember Rikki Neave.

Neither should public policy tolerate the sometimes limitless irresponsibility of a minority of natural parents who think that as long as they maintain some measure of contact, they can disturb the child and prevent the formation of new parental relationships. We must be equally realistic about the dreams of serial mothers who fantasise about a time when they can gather their children together and raise them in some ideal circumstance. We must be firm when such a fantasy is held at the cost of the life chances of children.

Adoption is not easy and will never be. The Bill will make it easier, which is a great step forward, but only one thing can alter the reality for the child of somebody having given him up. That one thing is love.

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