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Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman is wrong, and I am sure that he would not wish to mislead the House. I am sure that the combined wisdom of the Treasury-Bench quiz team is right in saying that the final scenes took place in Bolivia.
The hon. Member for Meriden quite rightly said that there are precedents for private Members' legislation being considered so speedily after the Second Reading of similar Government legislation. However, there was perhaps more of an edge to the disability discrimination legislation, because the sentiment behind that private Member's legislation was to make the Government's legislation much more radical. None the less, it is quite appropriate that we should have a second debate on this type of legislation.
The hon. Lady explained that her Bill had been written essentially between Monday night and Thursday lunchtime. She will forgive me if I say that, on a first reading, that shows. However, she explained the procedural reasons why the Bill had to be framed as it has been and the need to concentrate on issues that have not already been discussed by the House.
I should like to reply to most of the points that have been raised today by hon. Members. Then I hope to address any remaining issues and, in particular, to indicate the Government's initial response on the Bill's key provisions. I think that the hon. Lady and the whole House will accept that those proposals should be considered as issues for discussion and as possible amendments to the Government's Adoption and Children Bill as that legislation is considered by the House. Therefore, although my comments will indicate our initial reaction to the Adoption Bill, which was printed yesterday, I am sure that the House will wish to consider the Bill's proposals in more depth and detail than we shall be able to give them today.
On several occasions, the hon. Lady mentioned social services spending, particularly adoption allowances--which I shall deal with later. It would have been helpful to know whether the Opposition were committing themselves to sustain even current projected levels of social services spending. As the Opposition have failed so far to do that, I think that one is allowed some scepticism when they mention the need for additional spending.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox)--who has given his apologies for having to leave the debate to return for his constituency surgery this afternoon--spoke with great experience as a parliamentarian both in the House and internationally in the Council of Europe, and based on his constituency and local government roles. He stressed the importance of putting children's needs and interests at the heart of the adoption process.
My hon. Friend expressed some concern about the scrutiny of adoption agencies. In the United Kingdom, however, unregulated adoption agencies are unlawful. Only local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies approved by the Secretary of State can make arrangements for adoption. Currently, voluntary adoption agencies are inspected and approved by the social services inspectorate.
From 2002, however, the National Care Standards Commission will regulate voluntary adoption agencies and local authority adoption services. The commission will conduct regular inspections of services against new national minimum standards. I therefore hope that, if there are any shortcomings in current arrangements for the regulation of voluntary adoption agencies, they will be effectively addressed when the new arrangements are implemented.
I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting was the only hon. Member to talk at any length today about international adoption issues. I do not intend to dwell for long on those issues today. However, on Monday, in introducing the Government's Adoption and Children Bill, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health informed the House of that Bill's provisions to strengthen the safeguards on international adoption. We are taking measures through other legislation to sign up to the Hague convention. Once we have done so, not only can other safeguards be put in place but it will enable us to consider, if necessary, whether the existing bilateral arrangements are the right ones. I therefore believe that those concerns are being progressively addressed by the measures that the Government are taking.
The White Paper referred to my local authority of Southampton, which established a permanence team in 1997 covering all aspects of adoption. Contingency planning is now established practice. It provides a virtually seamless transfer between the teams, with the plan for adoption being considered by the adoption panel prior to the final court hearing. The experience has been that the waiting time has been reduced, especially for babies with no special placement needs. I endorse the right hon. Gentleman's call for best practice to be spread so that we can tackle problems as effectively as possible.
An interesting part of the debate has been the difference in emphasis put by right hon. and hon. Members on the process of deciding whether it was in the best interests of the child to go for adoption. From his local government experience, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting justified what he considered the reasonable inquiries that should be made before a child is placed with adoptive parents, while the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden was critical of some of those inquiries.
I believe that the answer lies in the way in which the Government Bill attempts to set out clearly the process that should be followed, the time scales that should be worked towards, the issues that should be taken into account and, to support all those factors, the training that should be made available to the professional staff in each case to make sure that the decision taken is in the best interests of the child. None of us believes that we can make sweeping statements about what is in the best interests of children, aside from a proper consideration of each child and his or her needs. The standards and issues identified in the Government Bill clearly put the interests of the children first.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North referred to children who are placed into adoption out of their local authority area. A number of right hon. and hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Meriden, spoke about where the financial responsibility lies in such a situation, how funds are transferred, and so on. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North was making the point that an adoption should be seen as a successful placement of a child with a family, and that it is not desirable to have links for ever and ever with the history of that child and hence with the local authority from which the child comes.
It is clearly important to have a financial arrangement that facilitates adoption, including adoption out of the child's original local authority. After all, the whole point of having a national register is so that children can be matched with prospective adopted parents. In an earlier intervention, the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) referred to placing children outside their own local authority area.
In a related intervention, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) asked whether children would be the responsibility of the local authority that had originally placed them for adoption, or that of the new, home local authority, if an adoption broke down. At present, the position varies. If the placement breaks down before adoption, the child is still the responsibility of the placing authority. If it breaks down after adoption, when the child is, by definition, no longer in care, the responsibility tends to fall to the receiving authority.
We shall develop the new framework for adoption support in consultation with the Association of Directors of Social Services, the Local Government Association and others. That will include how money flows around the system to support the objective of having a national register for adoption, which will be accessible to adoptive parents and children who need to be placed for adoption. That is, in part, a response to the hon. Lady's initiative in clause 1.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. With some difficulty, I have just obtained from the Vote Office the document issued by the Department of Trade and Industry entitled, "Mirror Group Newspapers PLC", which has just been published and is available through the Stationery Office. On making inquiries, the very helpful young man in the Vote Office told me that he did not expect any further supplies of the document from the Department of Trade and Industry because someone there had said something along the lines of "Not us, guv. Nothing to do with us. You'll have to go elsewhere."
I should like to ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to cause inquiries to be made into the status of that document and into whether it should be made freely available to Members through the Vote Office in the normal way; there should be no question whatever of the Department of Trade and Industry seeking to limit supplies of the document to Members.