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Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): When that issue was touched on in the debate on Monday, I thought that it would be regarded as controversial. However, I was surprised--as I am sure my hon. Friend was--by the unanimity across the House, including especially the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), who was strong on that particular point.

Mrs. Spelman: That is a helpful intervention, and I should like to pay tribute to several Members who spoke with practical experience and a lot of common sense in our debate on Monday night.

On that note of unanimity, I should like to conclude my remarks on the Bill. There is no question but that there is a broad degree of support for adoption reform. I have tried hard not to present my Bill in a partisan way this morning, as that would not be appropriate. I am really pleased that we have got to the point at which a major Bill has had its Second Reading. Given the proximity of the election, we all know that there is probably little chance of its proceeding even to the special Select Committee. However, it is important that it has been introduced, because it means that the subject is out in the open and the debate can develop.

It may be too late for the 58,000 children already in care, but we owe it to those brought into care daily to help them in the search for a permanent family and loving home by reforming the existing adoption law to ensure that they have that life chance. We also owe it to couples who, in many cases, have had to wait a long time for the privilege and pleasure of having children to call their own. I believe that both sides of the House are united on that; I hope that we can weave together my Bill and the Government Bill, and that the outcome will be the best that we can possibly achieve for the children, their prospective adoptive parents and the birth families from whom those children have been severed. That should be our aim, and I hope that my remarks have contributed to achieving it.

10.36 am

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting): May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on the subject that she has chosen for her private Member's Bill and the way in which she presented it to the House? I listened with great interest to all of her speech,

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especially her closing remarks; I am sure that there is widespread agreement on the kind of suggestions that she made. Regardless of whether there will be an election soon, the subject is such that, if a Member on either side of the House seeks to reintroduce a Bill on it, he or she will have wide support.

I wish to discuss clauses 2 and 3. I declare an interest as a member of the British delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. For a long time, I have been the rapporteur on the European strategy for children, which deals with a range of issues concerning the care and welfare of youngsters. We have produced reports on child abuse, child labour, refugee children and disabled children. We work closely with the 43 member states of the Council of Europe, have a close relationship with UNICEF and have published a major report on adoption. As the hon. Member for Meriden and others know, legislation on adoption varies enormously from country to country.

This has been a good week in the House for children. On Monday, we had Second Reading of the Adoption and Children Bill and this morning we are debating the hon. Lady's private Member's Bill. I am sorry that I was not here on Monday to seek to take part in the debate, but from reading the speeches it was clear that there was widespread support for the issue of adoption, irrespective of which side of the House participating Members sat on. We all know that adoption is an important issue, but it can often be complex and, at times, emotive. I am sure that, for all of us, the principal concern of adoption is the welfare and rights of the child. From time to time, I read about disturbing cases of adoption--as I am sure all hon. Members do--including how children become available for adoption. Whether we are Members of Parliament or members of the public, we are all distressed to read, as we have done recently, about cases of children changing hands for money. That is to be deeply deplored.

From time to time we hear of the difficulties facing a person who wishes to adopt. We would all agree that the principal consideration should be placing the child in a warm, loving family relationship. When I was in local government, I chaired the children's committee of the London borough of Hammersmith and served on many adoption panels. I can well recall the anxiety of prospective adopters when we interviewed them. I believe that we have a perfect right to ask questions and to make inquiries of people who seek to adopt. Our concern at all times should be for the future of the youngster whom we are considering placing with an adoptive parent or parents.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden on her wide-ranging speech. She mentioned the Prime Minister's comments about adoption. He is to be congratulated on his deep concern for the matter, and I support much of what he has said about it in recent months. Having read Monday's debate, I share many of the views expressed by the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), and by others who spoke, about the need to speed up the process and reduce the time that it often takes for a youngster to be adopted. We all know that some local authorities have good records and others do not, but I would not want any local authority to feel that it was

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being put under pressure to meet the wishes of the Government or the Department. The overriding consideration must be the welfare of the youngster.

The hon. Member for Meriden touched on another important issue--the number of youngsters who, sadly, remain in care for a very long time. All of us who have been involved in such work know how difficult those cases can be; they can also be tragic. As I have seen on my visits to European countries, one immediately recognises that those youngsters are crying out for love and warmth. In her speech, which I found very moving at times, the hon. Lady emphasised the need for us to work as hard as we can to ensure that youngsters who have been in care for a prolonged period are helped into a loving, tender, caring relationship, to which every child is entitled.

With reference to clause 2, I am involved in the adoption case of a young girl. Her father is serving a prison sentence in Wandsworth prison, which is in my constituency. His relationship with the child's mother has ended, and the mother wants the child placed for adoption. The case is being dealt with by a London borough authority--not my own, Wandsworth. The father does not want the child adopted, but he feels that as a result of the break-up of his relationship with the child's mother and the fact that he is in prison, his views are not being taken into account. I have great sympathy with his views.

From the correspondence that that man has been sending me from Wandsworth prison, my impression is that he and his daughter have a warm relationship. The fact that he is in prison is obviously an issue, but who can say that when he is released, he will not be capable of bringing up his daughter? From what I have learned from the correspondence, I believe that he has a right to be concerned about the possible adoption of his daughter. It would be interesting to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Meriden on the case, should she catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.

In the work that I do in the Council of Europe, I have always made it a policy--which is overwhelmingly supported by members of the committee there--that wherever practicable, the young people's views should be sought. When we are dealing with youngsters in care awaiting adoption, their views are not often sought.

As Members of Parliament, all of us visit schools in our constituencies. I find that a wonderful experience, especially visits to junior schools, because the children are so inquisitive and ask so many questions. I believe in being frank with youngsters. They often ask me how much I am paid as a Member of Parliament, and I tell them. That leads to great discussion of the fact that I am earning far more than their fathers, and they wonder how that is possible. That is how one treats youngsters with respect. We should be much more actively involved with youngsters who are in care and waiting to be adopted, to find out what they think and what vision of the future they have. Too often, sadly, that does not happen.

In my constituency I have a large ethnic community, and I deal with a great many immigration cases. There is clear evidence that there are certain solicitors and so-called immigration consultants--I see in the Chamber a former Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), who during his time in office will

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no doubt have come across some of those people--who have little knowledge of immigration law, but rip off my constituents.

There are also adoption agencies that rip people off. The way in which they operate and promote themselves should be much more closely scrutinised. From time to time I hear of cases that make me wonder what right they have to be involved with young children, when their sole consideration is the money that they can make from such cases. I deplore that.

I turn to clause 3. The hon. Member for Meriden and my right hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of the Hague convention on adoption. It is interesting to note the number of countries that follow it. I listened with interest to the way in which the hon. Lady presented clause 3, as I believe that it could have a bearing on my comments. In March, I tabled a written question to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, asking him


I was surprised by some of the 26 countries that were listed in the reply. I shall list some of them now, to give the House an indication of the enormous range of countries from which youngsters come into Britain for adoption. As I said, my work in the Council of Europe mostly involves countries that have similar forms of government, but even their adoption legislation can vary enormously. The list that I was given included China, Guatemala, Iran, Jamaica, Libya, Nigeria, South Africa, Ukraine, the United States of America and Vietnam, and those are only 10 out of the 26 countries on the list.

I put it to the House and to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State that the adoption laws of those countries must vary enormously. For example, what are the exact procedures that must be followed by somebody who seeks to adopt a child from Iran, Libya or Ukraine? We should be told far more about that. I have been to Ukraine as the chairman of the Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee of the Council of Europe, so I have seen the appalling problems that exist there. I have visited orphanages in Ukraine where the conditions are utterly deplorable. To their credit, some improvement is now being made, but one can well understand why some countries will say "If we can get our children adopted, our burden will be eased."

There may be some merit in that approach, but I believe that we are entitled not only to question deeply people who are seeking to adopt children and to obtain as much information as we can about their background, but to find out a great deal about the youngsters who are entering this country. We must know not only how they come here, but what information about them is available to social services in the areas where they live. Sadly, we hear time after time about appalling cases of child abuse in which social services say "We really knew very little about this youngster."

The Committee stage is a great advantage for Bills such as this one. Indeed, it will also benefit the Adoption and Children Bill, whose Second Reading was opened on Monday by the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness, as we shall have the opportunity to table amendments and new clauses. As the hon. Member for Meriden said, the

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House rarely has debates about adoption, so I hope that she, the Government and the party managers get together to ensure that the two Bills marry up. It would be a great disaster if anybody said "Well, we have this Bill and we're not interested in yours." We learn from each other, so I hope that the business managers will agree that the two Bills are linked.

All hon. Members who participate in debates such as this share the same overriding concerns. Today is a good day for Parliament, as was Monday. Our discussion will not get a great deal of coverage, but we know that people outside will follow it with great interest, as they did on Monday. This debate is an example of Parliament at its best, because we are discussing a matter that is very precious: the lives of young people, and our duty as the law makers of this country to introduce legislation to ensure the best possible safeguards for them. The Adoption and Children Bill and the hon. Lady's comments go a long way towards achieving that goal.

The hon. Lady made a number of important remarks. She referred to one matter that I thought was very important, and which I see from another angle because Wandsworth prison is situated in my constituency. I refer to contact between birth parents and an adopted child. I ask youngsters about these matters when I visit schools. Of course, some of them will have been adopted. I ask, "If you were adopted, when would you like to know about your real parents and their background?" They say, "When I want to know." I do not believe that youngsters have to be told until they ask.

I take the hon. Lady's point about the need for contact between the birth parents and the adopted youngster, but as she said, costs can be a determining factor in that respect. In Wandsworth prison, I see families who want to keep in contact with somebody who is serving a prison sentence in different part of the country from that in which they live. Their travelling expenses can be horrendous. We all know that it is not cheap to travel in the United Kingdom, and the hon. Lady made an important point about the costs that are involved.

I am about to use an expression that we do not hear much in the House these days. I see on the Opposition Benches colleagues who, like me, have been here for a number of years, so they will know that the phrase "nuts and bolts" was used a great deal in past. I believe that the hon. Lady has put some of the nuts and bolts onto this important issue. I congratulate her on that and wish her Bill success.


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