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Mr. Heald: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Government's proposals to cap the fees for guardians ad litem will mean that there are not as many such guardians? If anything, my hon. Friend's proposal, if implemented, would require more guardians ad litem. We are seeing the interests of children being badly damaged by ill thought through proposals, and they would make my hon. Friend's proposal extremely difficult to implement.

Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am not able to ask for extra spending, but within the resources that are available, I believe that my proposal would be a good use of money. The vast majority of guardians ad litem do an excellent job, very often with good will. It is important to resource their role.

We have learned about these matters through some most disturbing reports about children in care. I and other hon. Members had to read the Waterhouse report. Others who read it will also be disturbed by the poor voice that children have in our society. It is important that there be a voice for vulnerable children in care, and that someone should see them through. Again and again, children are lost in care because the key worker who was alongside them changes jobs, or someone else comes in. There is no continuity. At a key stage, a guardian ad litem would offer continuity.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Denham): When replying to the debate later, it may be helpful if I am clear about what the hon. Lady is proposing. Initially, there was slight confusion about the reference to a guardian ad litem in terms of the appeals system, given that the role of that guardian is to give advice to the courts. Is the hon. Lady proposing a greatly extended role for the guardian ad litem, so that in a sense he or she becomes almost a new statutory caseworker for the child? I am slightly confused about the role that she sees for the guardian ad litem and how that relates to the appeals system.

Mrs. Spelman: I am not trying to confuse the Minister. I am sure that he is aware that the Children Act 1989 lays out an appeals system. At present, the law focuses very much on the court process. The guardian ad litem does not see the case through to its conclusion, and it is that which I am trying to achieve. I hope that I have made things clearer. My proposal is not to be confused with the special guardianship that the right hon. Gentleman will know is in the Government Bill. That is a completely different concept.

Clause 3 deals with a completely different subject, which is the fast tracking of younger children. The Government's Bill, which was introduced on Monday,

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does not make a distinction in respect of children, although it introduces the concept of time limits, which we support. The purpose of introducing time limits is to speed up the process, which we all want to achieve.

The House may be surprised to learn that, perversely, it is sometimes taking longer to place younger children following on from care than older children. If someone in social services knows that there are a significant number of older children who will be quite difficult to place, he or she will do everything possible to encourage prospective adopters to take the children who are harder to place. That person will know that it will be easy to place babies and young children. Naturally, those in social services departments are trying hard to place older and more difficult children.

The tragedy is that it is detrimental to very little children to make them wait longer for adoption. Every parent knows that within a year a baby has bonded closely with its parents and other siblings. That is the way of nature. It is then detrimental to young children to be uprooted and moved. That is partly because their power of reasoning has not reached the point when it is possible to explain to them in detail why the uprooting has to take place. Yet it happens; I have seen it happen with my own eyes.

Some friends of mine are foster parents. They are now well beyond child-bearing age. At the request of the social services department, they took in a baby within the first six weeks of its life because mum was not well. That baby was still with them after a year. They felt that they could do nothing other than to adopt the baby. The child was talking and walking, and they knew that it would be detrimental to it if it were taken from them, and difficult for them, having bonded with it. They adopted the child and it has remained with them. However, there was probably an enormous queue of parents desperately wanting to adopt the baby. That opportunity has now been missed. And it happens again and again.

The hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) spoke movingly on Second Reading of the Government's Bill on Monday about her experiences when working in a children's home. She said that she was horrified to find three-year-olds in dormitories of 12 children. That is not an appropriate environment in which to raise a child of pre-school age. I would encourage hon. Members to listen to her moving account if it is carried, after editing, by "Yesterday in Parliament" late tonight.

The hon. Lady said that children were described as five, six, and seven o'clockers because those were their bedtimes. With the best will in the world, in that environment there is not the intimate relationship of parent and child. It is institutional, and we must try to get away from that. I am attempting to do that by complementing the Government's intentions by introducing fast tracking for younger children.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): I ask for clarification on the way in which the hon. Lady's proposals would change the situation that she outlined, with the foster family that proceeded to become an adoption family. I am not clear how her proposals addressed that case.

Mrs. Spelman: If fast tracking were introduced for under-threes, the foster family that agreed to take in a

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baby or toddler would have a clear idea that that would be for a much shorter time than usual, and that efforts would be redoubled to find permanence for that child. They would not be faced with the predicament of having had a young child for so long that they felt almost duty bound to offer to adopt it. In practical terms, that is what my proposal would achieve.

It is understood that it is easier for foster parents to cope with younger children. If the law were changed in line with my proposal, it would be clear that in taking a baby or a child under three, social services or voluntary services would be making an extra effort to have that child permanently placed more quickly. It is an important practical point, which I hope I have made clear.

Mr. Gardiner: In a situation such as the hon. Lady outlined, the child has been placed with a foster family specifically because there is every intention and hope that the natural mother will be able to take the child back after her illness. It was by force of circumstance that the original foster arrangement was extended. By fast tracking the adoption process, we cannot automatically get round such cases, which relate to individual circumstances and perhaps the prolongation of the natural parent's illness.

Mrs. Spelman: If I believed that all delays were due to the legitimate reason that I gave in my example--that the return to the birth family was unclear--I might have more sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point. The truth is that that is not the only reason why young children experience delays in the system. The example of a child in institutional care given by the hon. Member for Stockton, South is just one illustration of that.

The parting process from the birth family is one of the most difficult and fraught areas of adoption. On Monday, moving and practical speeches were made by hon. Members who have worked on the placement of children. They would be the first to acknowledge that the protracted parting and to-ing and fro-ing that sometimes occur when a decision is being made about whether children should be parted permanently from their birth parents can cause the greatest damage. It is difficult to legislate for that, and I am not seeking to do so; it is down to the expertise of those who are qualified to work with the birth family to make the process better. We would legislate for that only clumsily, if we tried, but the time limits under the Adoption and Children Bill should help a bit. There is more than one reason for little ones being delayed in the system. Because of the attachment that they form at such a young age it is important and humane to have a legislative incentive to move more quickly with them. We therefore need to address the question of babies and very young children.

At the outset, I said that the reform of the Adoption Act 1976 has a lot to do with addressing changes in society over the past generation. One change is that, for want of a better phrase, adoption has gone out of fashion among young mothers, who may formerly have considered that route. There are various reasons for that, to which I have referred, including the loss of stigma attached to raising a baby alone. However, it is still not easy to do that, and I am sure that, like me, hon. Members have followed cases in which young women have found it extremely difficult to manage raising a baby on their own.

When we talk about the number of children in poverty, often we are talking about young women who find themselves in a spiral of deprivation. Having got pregnant

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young, they miss out on their education, cannot get work and end up at the bottom of the pile. I know that the Government and Members on both sides of the House are trying to address that social change, which is a source of genuine difficulty.

Talking to those young women, I realised that adoption is nowadays promoted far less often as an option for them when they are pregnant. There is some history behind that; more than a generation ago, the reverse may have been true, and it was dealt with clumsily. All of us will have had contact with women who feel that their babies were taken from them in an uncaring manner, but now we have gone too far the other way in not presenting young women with the plausible option of having their babies adopted by families who very much want them and will give them a good life chance. As part of the discussion of reforming adoption, I hope that adoption will be promoted more actively to young women.

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