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29 Oct 2001 : Column 648

Points of Order

4.52 pm

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have given prior notice of this point of order to you and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

On 5 October, I tabled a written question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about alleged underspending on several public services, notably education and health. Twenty-four days later, I had not received a parliamentary answer from any Treasury Minister. Yet on 26 October, last Friday, a detailed briefing about precisely such underspending in several Departments was curiously and inexplicably provided to The Independent.

The sin of gross parliamentary discourtesy—that is, providing information calculatedly to a newspaper in advance, instead of giving the House an answer—has been compounded by another. On 24 October, I tabled a written question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about corporation tax. In column 261 of Hansard, I received what might be described as a desultory reply from the Chief Secretary, followed by an exhortation to consult the Inland Revenue website for further and better particulars.

That proved a disappointing exercise because the relevant page is entitled "Inland Revenue Missing Page", and states:

I am not an unduly suspicious character, but that raises the question of whether the page went absent without leave or, true to Treasury fashion, was removed by stealth. Either way, it is grossly unsatisfactory.

Has any Treasury Minister asked to make a statement on the matter? If not, will you give your verdict, Mr. Speaker, on that gross Government ineptitude?

Mr. Speaker: I cannot advise the hon. Gentleman about the missing page. However, if sufficient information is available for a press conference, an hon. Member who tables a parliamentary question should be able to get a proper answer. I hope that the Minister concerned takes note.

29 Oct 2001 : Column 649

Orders of the Day

Adoption and Children Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

4.55 pm

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Alan Milburn): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill has a simple aim: to ensure that every child in our society has the best possible start in life through the opportunities that flow from growing up in a stable and loving family. When children cannot live with their birth parents, I believe that society shares a responsibility to ensure that each child's life circumstances do not then limit their life chances. A kind and loving family is the rock on which society discharges that responsibility.

Adoption can mean a new start in life for many children, in particular children who have been in care. As every hon. Member knows, the opportunity to grow up in a stable family environment has not always been available to looked-after children who, for one reason or another, cannot live with their natural families. Adoption has too often been considered a last resort for those children when it should have been considered as the first response.

Not only the children have lost out, because society as a whole has paid a high price for that failure. At any one time, local councils look after nearly 60,000 children. More than six out of 10 leave care at 16 without a single qualification. Almost four in 10 male prisoners under 21 have been looked after at some stage in their lives. A quarter of people sleeping rough on the streets of London have been in care. That is not a failure of the child in care; it is a failure of the system of care, yet research has constantly shown over many years how adoption can overcome many of those problems.

Children adopted when they are more than six months old generally make good progress throughout childhood and into adulthood. They do considerably better than children who remained in the care system throughout most of their childhood. For those reasons, the Government are determined that more children in care should benefit from the improved life chances afforded by adoption.

By 2005, over the level of adoptions in 1999–2000, we aim for at least a 40 per cent. increase in the number of looked-after children who find adoptive parents. To achieve or exceed that target, we must fundamentally change the adoption system. Quite simply, it is letting down too many of our most vulnerable children.

Children stay in the care system far longer than they should. Almost 30,000 have been in care continuously for two years or more, and, too often, despite the best intentions of all those involved in the care system, they end up being passed from pillar to post. Nearly one in five looked-after children have three or more placements with different families in a single year. Some have six or more. These, remember, are precisely the children who already have a troubled history of family instability.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I appreciate the Secretary of State giving way so early in his speech.

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I know that social workers and others have had difficulties, but is there not also a mindset that might have to be changed?

A friend of mine adopted a second child, having taken a long time to adopt the first. The second child was allocated after doing well with the family, but three weeks or so later it was discovered that the child had spina bifida. The adoption worker asked to take the child back. My friend said no and is looking after the child.

Does the Bill represent a move to change the mindset of those responsible for adoption? I have come across a situation in which adoption would not be considered unless the hope of infertility treatment was given up while infertility treatment could not be guaranteed if people went for adoption. Surely that is not the way to deal with people who could care for children in need.

Mr. Milburn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Similar examples could be cited by many Members from their constituency experience and far too many potential adoptive families face precisely such Catch-22 situations. We must streamline the process. The most important measure in the Bill is simple and self-evident; it is so self-evident and such a common-sense change that one would have thought that it would not have required legislation. The Bill will ensure that in every decision on adoption the paramount interest is that of the child. The child's interest must come first. Those responsible by and large do a good job for potential adoptive parents and children waiting to be adopted, but as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the attitude and culture have too often not been in the best interests of the child. We must change the culture, but I do not pretend that merely by changing the law we can change the culture, because the problem is more deep-seated. I believe that the necessary precondition for a change in attitude or culture is the change in the law that we propose.

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion): I am sure that my right hon. Friend and his colleagues will be aware of the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of John Anthony Smith in King's College hospital in December 1999, and of the part 8 review carried out by Alyson Leslie on behalf of Brighton and Hove city council and West Sussex county council as a result of that death. The review talks of the need for adoption assessment to be more robust and investigative. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the review's findings will be fully taken into account in the further consideration of the Bill as it proceeds through the House?

Mr. Milburn: Yes. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I can give him a number of assurances. John Smith's death was tragic and dreadful. I know that my hon. Friend has closely followed the events that led up to conclusion of the review.

First, the social services inspectorate will have a close watching brief to ensure that the conclusions of the independent review that have been published are fully implemented in my hon. Friend's local authority. Secondly, there will be a full scale SSI inspection of the Brighton and Hove local authority, which I expect to begin in April next year. More broadly, we must ensure quality and high standards in every part of the adoption process, not just in assessment.

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Last year, we published for consultation—and are beginning to implement from this year—new national standards that will apply to the adoption process in all parts of the country. Those standards are long overdue, and I hope that, together with the legal changes that we propose in the Bill, they will help prevent a tragedy such as that to which my hon. Friend referred.

The problems faced in the adoption process are partly due to the fact that local authority performance is too varied across the country. In some councils, 10 per cent. of looked-after children are adopted, whereas in others the figure is less than 2 per cent. Overall, the adoption system, including the courts, is too slow and bureaucratic: it is opaque and often unfair. Potential parents wait on average nine and a half months from being accepted as an adopter to having a child placed with them. The average time taken for a looked-after child to be adopted is two years and nine months—an eternity in a child's eyes.

There has, of course, been some improvement in recent years. As we concentrate on the problems, it is also worth bearing in mind some of the advances that have taken place. Even though the total time spent in care prior to adoption is still far too long, it has been falling over recent years. I am pleased to be able to report that still further progress has been made since I came to this House last December when the adoption White Paper was published. There has been a significant increase in the number of children adopted from care for the second year in a row. More than 300 extra children were adopted in 2000–01 compared with 1999–2000. Through the quality protects programme, there has been an increase of almost 40 per cent. in the number of adoptions from care since March 1999.

However, this is no time for those involved to rest on their laurels. Despite those recent improvements, the adoption system is still in need of far-reaching change. That is why we have introduced a series of measures to reform adoption practice, and to make adoption a better and more attractive option for more families.

First, we published new adoption standards, including target maximum waiting times for the securing of a permanent new family for looked-after children, which will apply in all parts of the country. Secondly, we are increasing financial support for the adoption service, investing an extra £66 million over this year and the two that will follow it, over and above the £51 million that councils tell us they currently spend on adoption services. Thirdly, we plan to introduce new rights to give adoptive parents paid adoption leave, and access to benefits that are currently available only to natural parents.

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