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12.27 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): May I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on introducing a timely measure? I pay tribute to the work that she has put in during the lead-up to the presentation of her Bill, especially in the past week, not least since the publication of the Government Bill. A tremendous effort is involved in putting together and introducing a Bill that is in order, especially when there is short notice as a consequence of the introduction of a Government Bill on the subject.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the impact that she has had in expediting the Government measure. She sounded a cautionary note on the necessity of staying in order when debating her Bill, given the existence of the Government Bill; I took that as a warning that I should not be tempted to repeat the speech that I made on the Government Bill on Monday. I shall endeavour not to repeat myself but, given the number of Members who did not speak on Monday but have had a second opportunity to address the House on an important subject, it will be difficult to avoid much of the same agenda, even if I avoid making the same speech.

In her exposition of her Bill, my hon. Friend was extremely lucid about the importance of passporting finance and the question of an adoption allowance. If any

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Members were in the dark about the intricacy of those subjects before her presentation, they could not claim to be so now. Certainly, it would be impertinent of me to address those subjects in any detail, given her exposition. That is also true of what she said about the need for a fair and transparent appeals system.

My hon. Friend was followed by the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), who could not be with us on Monday. Had he been here, he would not have been out of place because our proceedings were characterised by a high-quality debate, and his contribution today lived up to that standard.

The hon. Gentleman brought us his valuable experience as the chairman of the Council of Europe social affairs committee. He drew our attention, rightly, to the variable performance of local authorities and he introduced a significant constituency case. Opinionated as we politicians naturally are, it is important for us to be conditioned by the real experience of ordinary constituents. Such constituency cases brought to our attention in the Chamber are vital to anchor us in the reality that ordinary people experience. The hon. Gentleman emphasised the need to scrutinise adoption agencies, and dealt with important aspects of overseas investment. He ended with a powerful call for unanimity and for the two Bills to be married together. I should certainly welcome that as the outcome of our debate today.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) followed, and introduced a point that is implicit in all that has been said in the debate, but it was valuable to have it made explicit that adoption is for children. He went on to argue cogently that the state has failed as a parent and that, by contrast, adoption is a success. He drew attention to a troubling problem in some local authorities, but by no means all: in some cases, there is an institutional hostility to adoption and a preference for returning children to their birth families.

We know the possible consequences when those families have no desire for the children's return or are inadequate to it. I draw the attention of the House to the case of Rikki Neave in that respect. My right hon. Friend noted that 80 per cent. of children never return to their birth parents, and it is to those 80 per cent. that we owe a huge duty of care. By introducing measures such as the Bill, we shall provide them with a much greater opportunity to achieve the adoption that they so badly need.

The hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) did us a service by drawing our attention to the Prime Minister's commitment to the subject. I hope that as a result of that commitment, the agenda will be moved swiftly forward and that both Bills will be united. The hon. Gentleman told us a great deal about the Government's Bill, which was not unhelpful. Notwithstanding the fact that we are not debating that Bill, it was useful to be reminded of the Government's proposals, and I thank him for that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) spoke powerfully. It was a privilege to have the benefit of his experience as a member of the magistracy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) gave us the benefit of her experience as a member of the Select Committee on Health. She gave an excellent

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exposition and spoke of the realistic prospect of reconciliation with birth families. That should not be denied, but I wonder whether she would agree that there is a difficulty when social workers put the possibility of reconciliation with the birth family above every other priority. Such reconciliations fail much more often than do adoptions. I do not believe that public policy should ever be allowed to be driven by the sometimes capricious demands of birth families to be considered and to maintain some cursory contact, where that may wreck the child's chance of a new start in an adoptive family.

As I said on Monday, the irresponsibility of some birth parents must be limited in that respect. There are serial mothers who fantasise about gathering all their children together at some time in an ideal future, but such fantasies cannot be allowed to prevent children from pursuing their lives and getting a new start in the meantime. Of course, the alternative is to go through the care system, with all the consequences about which we have heard. I assume that my hon. Friend is thoroughly aware of those issues, as she quoted the Utting report in that regard.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) made a tremendous contribution that was born out of his experience not only as a member of a local government social services committee, but as an adoptive parent. I thought that he was rather disparaging when he said that being an adoptive parent was no more difficult than being a natural one. I bow to his experience, as he is both, but I should have thought that being an adoptive parent was more difficult, as it requires greater resourcefulness. He implied that adoptive parents were more resourceful by saying that only they are required to demonstrate that they can carry out the task of parenting before they are allowed to do so.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the problem of mixed-race adoption. I have done some reading about that, and I hope that he can help me on some of the issues that are raised. I have read expositions suggesting that children from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds should not be expected to be adopted in the same way as children from other backgrounds, because of the huge and much wider support systems that exist in Afro-Caribbean families. It is sometimes suggested that the children of such families can more readily be raised by aunts, uncles and close relatives than children from indigenous families.

I am doubtful about that. The reality is that statistics about those who are categorised as black children for adoption deal mainly with mixed-race children for adoption.

Mr. Stunell: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Swayne: I shall do so once I have formulated my argument--if, indeed, I can do so.

The children to whom I refer are generally of mixed race and usually have a white mother and a black father whose relationship has broken down. Such children have no means of support and no extended family, so there is a case for suggesting that we should not concern ourselves too much with finding the ideal family for a particular child. If staying in care is a likely consequence, surely any other option is better.

Mr. Stunell: I hesitate to lurch from being a parent to being a world expert in one intervention, but I must say

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that, in an increasingly multicultural and multi-ethnic Britain, we need to recognise that we are not talking about first-generation immigrants. That is certainly the case with my children, who were the product of natural parents who were not themselves first-generation immigrants. We are talking about people who are British, but of a different colour. I say to the hon. Gentleman--I want to keep this intervention short--that I hope that I shall have some debates with Conservative Members about precisely what we mean by the terms "multicultural" and "multi-ethnic". The fact is that we are talking about British children who happen to have a different ethnic background. They do not intrinsically have better support services or better--or even different--cultural backgrounds.

Mr. Swayne: That was a helpful intervention, and I bow to the hon. Gentleman's experience.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) said that it was difficult to follow so many excellent speeches. I remind him of his excellent speech on Monday. In his short, important contribution today, he drew to our attention the way in which the previous attempt to establish a national register for adoption on a voluntary basis was thwarted because finance could not be passported. The Bill tries to tackle that problem. My right hon. Friend's telling point will inform our decision on the measure. He also spoke of the importance of fast tracking babies, and provided the significant insight that a year in care is much more damaging for a small child than for an 11-year-old.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned record keeping, which the Bill covers. Other speakers have not dwelt on that important point, but I shall say more about it later. He suggested considerations that directors of social services should make about the records that their local authorities should collect. Again, I want to revert to that subject shortly.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden set out the reasons for the Bill, she did us a service by recalling that we have an opportunity that generally occurs once in a generation in the history of adoption. That history goes well beyond the House's involvement, which began in the 1920s. Adoption has an ancient and distinguished history. The course of history would have been different if Moses had not been adopted by Pharaoh's daughter. However, transplanting an adoptee into a new family as a full member of it is a 20th-century phenomenon.

In the past, adoption was different. Foundlings and orphans were taken in by relatives or others in ancient societies, but they were rarely considered full members of the adoptive families with equal rights in the way in which the Adoption of Children Act 1926 established for the first time in Anglo-Saxon legal history. In the past, considerations of lineage and inheritance worked against the inclusion of adoptees as full and equal members of a family.

Despite the 1926 Act, institutions were considered to be the proper places in which to care for foundlings, orphans and children who had been rejected by their birth parents. That ethos extended into the second half of last century, when large institutions, many of them charitable, were created specifically for that purpose.

The Bill seeks to amend the Adoption Act 1976, which is the successor of the 1926 Act. Our understanding of adoption as shown in the measure and in the 1976 Act is

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a relatively new, 20th-century phenomenon. They are not based on the models of adoption that stretch back to ancient times.

It was stressed on Monday and today that an institutional background for children has been a disaster, which is compounded by the increase in family breakdown that we witness in our times.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden did us a service by drawing the level of family breakdown to our attention. In my experience, when constituents come to my surgeries with a problem, that problem might have manifested itself in any of a number of ways--but, in nine out of 10 cases, if we scratch the surface, family breakdown usually lies behind it. That is something that we face in our time more than ever before.

Local authorities have not been successful in protecting children in their care. Those children are the most disadvantaged, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden gave us a series of powerful statistics to bear that out. Let us face it, children leaving care account for less than 1 per cent. of their generation, yet they are vastly over-represented in measures of deprivation such as psychiatric disorder, poor health and a lack of educational achievement--75 per cent. of such children have no educational qualifications at all.

Children leaving care lack many of the basic life skills. More importantly, they are deprived of that kin support system that young adults enjoy by being members of a family, and being able to go home with their problems and receive advice, love and financial support. That is not available to children in care. That is why children who have been in care are over-represented among the homeless, the unemployed and those in prison. It is a shocking statistic that one in seven young women leaving care is either already a mother or pregnant. What possible start in life can a child have, being born to a young girl leaving care? The whole cycle of deprivation is set to begin again.

The Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), said on Monday that there had been a significant increase recently in the number of foster parents making their services available. That is encouraging and most welcome, because two thirds of local authorities have problems recruiting foster parents. One study showed that 60 per cent. of foster parents had been fostering for less than a year, so there is a relatively high turnover. As a result of the shortage, only 20 per cent. of local authorities can offer a choice of placement to a child under 10. Only 3 per cent. of local authorities can offer a choice of placement to an older child. That lack of scope for choice raises the question of how many children get a placement determined by a proper measure of their needs.

The foremost feature of the system is the children's experience of moving through multiple placements. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden spoke of a case in which a child had had 60 placements. There are many 10-year-old children in our land who have had 10 foster homes since the age of five. It is little wonder that they emerge from the process so disadvantaged. To be honest, we have abolished their childhood.

The alternative social policy to care and fostering is adoption. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden pointed out, adoption is a success: it

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works. In so far as anything works, only a substitute family seems up to the task of bringing troubled children into adulthood. That bears testimony to the therapeutic effects of the love of the new family. I suggest that the tremendous ability to overcome early disadvantage is evidence of grace working through our modern world.

Adopted children have fewer problems than non-adopted children from similar circumstances. It is important to bear that in mind, because in a telling intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), we learned that only 9 per cent. of adoptions fail. The figure is higher for older children who suffer with a number of particular disadvantages such as learning difficulties and special needs. Nevertheless, even for older children with special needs, the adoption failure rate is only about 20 per cent and, overall, adoption is successful in 90 per cent. of cases.

Of course, the younger the age at which adoption takes place, the more successful it is. Therefore, as I said on Monday, there is, to an extent, a possibility that adoption delayed is adoption denied, so our purpose must be to fashion a public policy to allow more children to benefit from adoption, and to benefit from it sooner, by tackling the delays. That is the context in which I consider the Bill.

The local authorities are the instrument through which adoption takes place and their performance is patchy: some are very good or exemplary, others not so. We have heard about the differential rates at which adoption is achieved, which are highly variable. We must find ways to get the worst to perform as the best and we must attack the endemic and systemic delays in the process.

We must also tackle the perception--I choose my words carefully--of political correctness, which hon. Members dealt with not so much today as on Monday. The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) made a brave attempt, and certainly the only one made on that occasion, to defend what some people would regard as political correctness, pointing out that, in many cases, it represents common sense. There is some force in what he said, but the risks in being adopted by fat people or smokers are very, very much smaller than those attendant on a child who is not adopted, but left in care.

It is important that we devise methods, such as those suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, to ensure that more children are adopted and adopted more quickly. We must also ensure that the decision-making process involves appropriate decisiveness and minimum delay, and at various points we need sanctions against bureaucratic inertia.

Schools make public their performance tables annually. It would not be unreasonable to expect local authorities to publish--say, within 30 days of the year end--the number of children in care, the time that they have been in care and the number who are free to be adopted, but who have not yet been put in pre-adoptive placements. The provision of such statistics and the collection of that information would in itself provide incentives for the less-well-performing local authorities to perform better.

Given the increasing court time taken up by child protection and adoption cases, a culture of delay in family justice also has to be tackled. Time limits should be built into the regulations to enable proceedings to be expedited,

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as far as possible, with fast-track procedures such as those to which my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden drew attention. Is it unreasonable to expect an adoption application to be completed in, say, three months, subject to the consent of the natural parents? Some cases are difficult, but in many examples it would be reasonable to expect that to be achieved. There is, of course, a wider argument about separating children's cases from the generality of court work.

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