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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): The right hon. Gentleman will know that that is not a matter for the Chair to comment on directly. Those on the Government Front Bench will have heard what he has had to say, and it is to be hoped that the matter will be put right as quickly as possible.

Mr. Denham: As I was saying, in developing the new framework for adoption support, which will include post-adoption support and the financial allowances, we want to consider how our objectives of making a national register available to prospective adoptive parents and children who need to be adopted can be satisfactorily achieved. We will want to make regulations, under clauses 3(8) and 4(8) of the Adoption and Children Bill, to set out clearly the financial responsibility of placing and receiving local authorities.

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We are, of course, generally providing more money--more than £60 million over the next three years--to support the promotion of adoption. That will help to tackle the disincentives relating to resources that have been mentioned. The hon. Lady proposes a particular mechanism to link the money to each child, by which she seeks to achieve the objective of creating a system with no disincentives. We are not convinced that that is the right way forward. We recognise the need to tackle the issue, and propose to do so through regulations, but I am sure that the detail of how money flows around the system will be properly discussed when the Adoption and Children Bill is considered in Committee.

The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) spoke about the cost to individual children and society of failures in the child care system, as did several hon. Members on both sides of the House. He drew from his experience in discussing the link between failures of the child care system and involvement in crime. He went through several provisions in the Bill--on finance, which I have dealt with, on appeals, which I shall come to later, and on fast-tracking younger children, which I have dealt with in part but shall come back to later.

The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) referred to some conclusions drawn by the Health Select Committee, including conclusions drawn during her distinguished chairmanship. She used the expression "absence of urgency" in referring to the procedures of some social services departments in dealing with adoption, and talked about problems of resources. I hope that the Government's Adoption and Children Bill will deal with both issues by establishing a framework that will include time scales within which local authority social services departments will be expected to consider whether a child should go for adoption and within which adoption should successfully be achieved. We will also invest new money in adoption through quality protects. We will help to tackle both issues.

The hon. Lady suggested that there was an over-emphasis on returning children to the birth family, irrespective of other options. The point of the Government's approach--I think that there is cross-party consensus on this--is that the best interests of the child must be the overriding and governing principle. We are setting down in our Bill a set of issues that must be taken into account, subject to the test that any action must be in the best interests of the child. That means that one cannot have a fixed preconception about what is in the interests of a child before he or she has been assessed.

Mr. Stunell: Does the Minister accept that there is sometimes a professional search for perfection that leads to the very delays and difficulties that undermine a satisfactory outcome?

Mr. Denham: The point was made effectively by the hon. Gentleman when he talked about his personal experience, and by several other hon. Members, that purely assessing the absolute merits of a course of action rather than the choices available to a child can lead to a difficult situation. Several hon. Members spoke of their concerns: it is as though the best becomes the enemy of the good. Such an attitude should be challenged if the

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process of considering the child's best interests has been established. By logic, considering the best interests of the child will lead people to consider the options that are practically open in the circumstances, and which one of those is best.

Mr. Heald: Does the Minister have any concerns about social work practice? Does he agree that adoption is seen as a draconian last resort? Is it not necessary for social workers to take far more account of the fact that continually trying to re-establish a child in a family where the parents are hardly able to look after themselves may be draconian in itself?

Mr. Denham: I accept that things have been done with the best motivation but have turned out to be wrong. I am not one of those who will indulge in a sweeping attack on the social services profession. Although occasionally--as in any other profession--we see examples of incompetence and bad practice, people have for the most part genuinely believed that what they were doing was in the best interests of the child, even where things have gone wrong. As a Government, we are saying that that has brought us to an outcome that we do not want.

We have heard all the statistics about the failures of children in care in education, their failure to establish relationships, their involvement in crime and so on. The process that we propose, with the expectation that adoption will be properly considered within a reasonable time scale, will begin to change those attitudes and failures.

I would not underestimate the need to back up the legal and procedural changes proposed in the Bill with the need for continued professional training of social workers. We have made substantial sums available over the next few years for improved training of social workers, which is extremely important.

Rather than blaming individuals, I like to recognise attitudes over time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) said on Monday, over an extended period it was thought that sending children to the other side of the world would be in their best interests. We have learned since that some horrific mistakes were made as a result. I am sure that the vast majority of those involved genuinely thought that they were acting in the children's best interests. I hope that the consensus that is reflected in the Chamber now, as it was on Monday, on the important role of adoption and the way in which we should approach it will lead to better outcomes for children than we have seen in the past. That is our commitment, and I think that it is shared throughout the House.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) spoke in part about his own experience. I think that he shared some of my concerns about the role set out in the Bill of guardians ad litem. There is a sign of slippage from their current and specific role of giving advice towards a wider role in the system. I shall return to that.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) raised a number of issues, including the importance of record keeping and the need to know what is happening to children. I share his view that it is important to know what is going on within a system. I have no doubt that one of the reasons for a fall in the number of long trolley waits in accident and emergency

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departments over the past year or so is that we have insisted that chief executives should know whether they are happening. People should know what is going on within their organisations. It is a prompt to take action if standards are not being met.

The Government are taking action to improve planning and record keeping for children. Over the next year, we shall develop an integrated record keeping system, which will bring together planning and record keeping for children in need in the community, and for those who are looked after by local authorities.

We want to improve local authorities' information and record keeping so that they can track the progress of the children for whom they are responsible. That is a key theme of the quality protects programme. Implementation of the new time scale targets in the national adoption standards will drive this process. It is worth noting that each year we publish figures by local authorities on the numbers of looked-after children who are adopted. It is a national social services performance indicator. We shall want to review performance indicators to ensure that appropriate indicators are in place to support the measures that are set out in the White Paper.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West rehearsed his concerns about some of the inappropriate established attitudes that might be brought to bear. I think that I expressed my views on that subject in an earlier exchange. Again, it is a matter of getting the process right, getting the measures right, getting the issues right that should be taken into account and ensuring that staff are properly trained.

I have a slight qualification to make. I am not sure that this is what the hon. Gentleman intended, but it sounded at times as though he felt that adoption was the only thing that could work for children in care. I think that we all recognise that that will not always be the outcome. He is aware of the Government's support for adoption and our support also for fostering. It will not always be possible to meet the needs of all children through either of the two routes. We must recognise that there is still a job to be done for children who cannot be cared for in either way.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the role of local authorities and referred to the earlier report, which questioned whether it should be a local authority role to handle adoption. The matter was considered in the performance and innovation unit report, and it has certainly been considered by the Government. It is our view that local authorities generally should be responsible for running the adoption service. The White Paper published in January held out the possibility that, if a local authority was simply unable to run an effective adoption service, responsibility could be transferred to another local authority or voluntary adoption agency. That is not dealt with directly in the Government Bill because the legislative power to make such a transfer is given to us in the best value legislation.

Finally, I turn to the issues raised by the hon. Member for Meriden and the specifics of her Bill. Clause 3 covers the assessment of children for adoption; the Bill also includes powers to make regulations setting out how adoption agencies should carry out their functions of making arrangements for adoption, placing children for adoption and keeping records. We are already dealing with the time scales for assessing children. The national adoption standards, which were published for consultation

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alongside our adoption White Paper in December, set challenging time scales for assessing children. Standard time scales will not suit all children; they need to be flexible to take into account the needs of individual children. Regulations are unlikely to offer the necessary flexibility. We shall take into account responses to the consultation on the national adoption standards when dealing with those issues.

As the House will know, one objective is that a plan for a child should normally be drawn up no more than six months after he or she has come into care--sooner, if that is appropriate for the child. If adoption is the plan, a best interest decision should be made in six weeks and a match with parents in a further six months. It is important for younger children that decisions should happen as soon as possible; for babies and infants, speed is extremely important. That is why the standards proposed where a parent requests that his or her baby be placed for adoption specify that a placement be identified in three months and adoption panels meet, with 48 hours' notice if necessary, to make decisions on babies and infants.

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