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Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that children are already placed with same-sex couples, but that what happens in law is that one partner adopts the child and the other seeks parental responsibility through an alternative court proceeding? That method, in its way, provides for adoption, but does it not mean that unmarried heterosexual couples are being discriminated against?

Dr. Harris: I agree that there is discrimination whichever way one looks at it. The easiest way in which to tackle the problem would be to recognise that, as long as the criteria for adoptive parents are met and the welfare of the child is paramount, there should be no bar to joint adoption by such couples. I have seen no evidence that couples' sexuality or marital status affects their ability to provide a happy home for children. Indeed, the evidence is that children born to lesbian couples using an intermediary and unknown donor are very well adjusted.

Liz Blackman (Erewash): I totally support the hon. Gentleman's arguments about re-examining the issue of marital status. Does he agree that an additional point that could be used to make that case is that we are short of good quality prospective adoptive parents? There are far more looked-after children who could be adopted than there are prospective adopters.

Dr. Harris: The hon. Lady puts well the argument on which this section of my speech started. There is anecdotal evidence from adoption agencies that 10 per cent. of couples who apply to adopt are not married. They may be put off by the fact that they are rejected ab initio from performing the role of adopters. In addition, 40 per cent. of children are now born outside marriage, making such family structures a recognised and common form. To continue to discriminate against such couples is wholly unnecessary and detrimental to the children whose interests we want to be put first. I hope that the Conservatives will reflect on the message sent by the electorate—a message that many of them have accepted privately, although fewer have done so publicly—and join us in pressing the Government on that issue.

It has already been said that targets can dominate policy, which would be wrong, rather than provide an insight into the successful or otherwise outcome of policy. Targets—whether for the number of placements and adoptions, or for waiting times—are useful as monitoring devices, but when they become an end in themselves, policy and procedures may be perverted to meet them. I understand the pressure that the media and Opposition parties can exert on the Government to establish and meet targets, but I hope that adoption targets will not be rigid. Adoption should be policy-led, not target-led.

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I am delighted that the Government are to let local authorities retain responsibility for adoption, which is a core social services function. The key issue is resources. It would be a false economy not to invest sufficient resources in adoption services to maximise the number of good adoptions. Adoption services have historically been under-resourced and social services generally are being squeezed.

My next point is one that it is legitimate to make on Second Reading, and I intend to repeat it at every opportunity. It is that my local county council is again having to make cuts across a range of social services as additional duties imposed by the Government, as well as its responsibilities to an ageing population and a greater number of looked-after children, outstrip the growth money that the Government provided after their first two years in government. In their first two years, there was a real-terms cut in funding. I hope that the Minister will listen to the voice of the Local Government Association about resources and recognise that ring fencing is not the answer. It is easy for Conservative spokespeople to say "Let us ring-fence an inadequate amount of resources", but that does not solve the problem.

Critically, if we are to increase the amount and quality of adoption, we must have the necessary staff, which means raising the status of social workers and recognising the staff shortages that now exist not only in the south-east, but elsewhere. It will be a tragedy if the Government cannot deliver on those aims. Although investigations must be carried out when dreadful cases arise, I hope that hon. Members in all parties recognise that the use of such cases as an excuse to clobber under-resourced and overstretched social workers makes matters worse in the long run. We must ensure that we do not damage our case by seeking to allocate blame—a principle that applies in other health care professions.

On post-adoption financial support for adoptive parents, I worry when I hear the term "postcode lottery", as it implies that the misery will be shared out evenly when there is a problem with resources and that social services departments will not have the flexibility to focus resources where they feel them to be most needed. Adoptive parents in some areas will be less well resourced than those in other areas and will need additional funding. If we impose rigid central control, even with the welcome but misguided aim of ensuring no variation in provision, we may well be doing people a disservice.

Much has been said about intercountry adoption aspects. Will the Minister explain why the six-month limit in the new legislation has been introduced for overseas adopters? My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), who will seek to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, joins me in asking whether we can ensure that we do not deprive children from other countries of the opportunities for adoption by being over-rigid in our application of criteria. Of course, we recognise that welfare considerations must be met. Our worry, however, is about cases in which all criteria are met, but the original country's procedures are not recognised by this country, so adoption is prevented, however good it would be, however appropriate the steps that have been taken and however clearly the birth parents have given their consent. That may be inevitable, but I hope that the Government will reflect on the effect of seeking to look tough and on the risk of penalising reasonable and genuine adoptive arrangements.

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I was interested in the question whether the religious views of the child are an issue. One must accept that it is only older children with significant capacity who will come to their own religious views. Personally, I would worry if the options for adoption were restricted for children who were born into a religious household of one denomination or another. It would be inappropriate for such children to wait longer for suitable adoptive parents than children who were born into atheist families or who do not know about their supposed inherited religion. Religious beliefs, like political ones, are different from race and gender, as they are acquired. If religious belief is to mean anything, it must be consciously entered into rather than inherited genetically. I hope that that issue will be carefully considered.

My final two points relate to ethically difficult areas. First is the question of parental consent and its significance when a small advantage is deemed to be gained from adoption in terms of the welfare of the child, but there is fierce opposition from parents with the capacity to withhold consent. There may be only a few cases in which that happens, but the matter will have to be explored very carefully in the Special Standing Committee. We must recognise that consent must be genuine to be valid. Consent has far too often been sought under inducement. It is better not to use an excuse where there is clearly no genuine consent.

Finally, I question the presumption of the hon. Member for Woodspring that we have an absolute right with regard to the Government's proposals to protect third-party rights in terms of access to information, with which he took issue. I am much more inclined to support the Government position. I do not believe that we have an absolute right to know who we are in genetic terms. I say to those on the Conservative Front Bench that we do not have an absolute right to subject our fathers to DNA testing to see whether they really are our fathers. Research evidence from anonymous testing suggests that the proportion of children who are not their father's child is well into double figures in urban areas. We do not have such a right and I do not believe that we should have it. [Interruption.] I am sorry if I am making some hon. Members uncomfortable; I did not intend to do so. I was referring to what is suggested by research. It is questionable for people glibly to say that one has an absolute right to knowledge of one's genetic inheritance.

All in all, the Bill is a very valuable measure. I echo the points that have been made on both sides of the House about the fact that so much of it is welcome and overdue. I look forward to the rest of the debate and to a healthy and—where appropriate—heated Committee stage.

6.25 pm

Liz Blackman (Erewash): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey), I served on the Select Committee so I am delighted to be called to speak in this debate. I add my voice to those on both sides of the House who have congratulated the Government on the Bill, but I point out that we must also congratulate them on what came before it. It was praiseworthy that an Adoption and Children Bill came to the House shortly before the last general election. I congratulate the Government on establishing the Select Committee and on heeding the

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evidence that was taken and using it to improve that Bill. I also congratulate them on the speed with which they brought this Bill to the House. The Select Committee was concerned to ensure that we would not lose impetus, so their track record speaks volumes.

I do not propose to say much about the two core objectives that the Bill seeks to achieve: putting the child at the centre of the process and speeding up that process. Much has already been said about those aims. I merely point out that the two are inextricably linked and that it is also worth acknowledging that the Government were putting in place many planks of the process before the Bill's return to the Floor of the House, to help to speed up the adoption process and to put the child at its heart.

The national adoption standards, which will be enforced by the National Care Standards Commission from April 2002, were issued this August. An adoption and permanence taskforce has also been set up to support local councils in improving their performance—a point to which I shall return in a moment. The Lord Chancellor's Department announced that adoption work in county courts and above was to be centralised in specialist adoption centres throughout England and Wales from the beginning of this month. Without doubt, the original system has played a significant part in delaying that process. However, will the Minister tell us whether the change has gone smoothly in the first instance? I should also be interested to know how the work will be monitored in future. Another move forward was the establishment of a national adoption register under the old legislation. It will, of course, operate with increased powers under the Bill.

I welcome the introduction of an independent review mechanism for those who feel that they have been turned down unfairly as adopters—an issue about which I spoke on 26 March and to which I shall return. I also welcome the new special guardianship orders to provide security for children where adoption is not appropriate, and the post-adoption support system which will extend beyond the age of 18. The targets that we set are rightly ambitious. We seek to increase the number of adoptions by 40 per cent. by 2004–05 and to bring all councils' practice up to the level of the best within the same time frame.

Placing looked-after children successfully has become so difficult over the years because of the proportion of children in care with special needs—I use that expression in its broadest sense. Many children in care are badly damaged and it is more of a challenge for the system, including social workers and agencies, to work quickly and make the right matches.

It is therefore unsurprising that it is easier to place smaller children for adoption and that statistics for post-adoption breakdown are especially high—nearly 50 per cent.—for older children. Post-adoption support is paramount and a key plank of the Bill. A sense of further failure and worthlessness in the children must be avoided at all costs.

Let us consider the adoption and permanence taskforce and the varying performance of local authorities. Successful adoption rates vary from 1 to 10 per cent. according to the Minister, and up to 14 per cent. according to the House of Commons research paper. Good practice will continue to be vital to the success of the new framework, which will probably not improve the

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outcomes as desired by itself. The practice as well as the framework must be right. I should like to hear the Minister's views on delivery, apart from the measure, in more detail.

We have known for some time that practice varies. What analysis has the Department carried out on the key reasons for that? What are the main factors? Has anything been done in the interim to tackle the findings of such analysis? The taskforce aims to give practical help to authorities with development plans and implementation, and to share good practice.

The first 11 councils have already had preliminary visits. I am interested in the way those councils were chosen and whether they were predominantly in poorer performing areas where adoption success rates are lower. Children who live in the jurisdiction of the poorest- performing local authorities remain less likely to be successfully placed in the first instance under the new regime. I should be interested to know the taskforce's initial findings. It has recently published an annual report, but I should like some more detail.

Good management is at the heart of success. I know that from my long experience in the education system and from experience of other organisations in my current job. Good management makes the crucial difference between organisations that perform averagely, poorly and well. An organisation can have good workers and professionals, but without a vision that good management communicates clearly and insists upon, implementation of a policy is much more difficult. Good management, good training and a change in culture in some authorities and agencies are required. That can be achieved not by the Bill alone but by support and monitoring.

Will the authorities that perform least well be monitored more closely as we try to improve the target to 40 per cent? Who will undertake that monitoring? Will the taskforce play a role? I note from its annual report that it cannot criticise management. However, could it make constructive observations—or even criticisms—through defined channels so that the points that it notes are properly fed back to the authorities responsible for monitoring and improving standards?

I spoke on Second Reading on 26 March because of a constituency case. Parents who had been approved for adoption were made to feel guilty twice for requesting detailed information about the children involved. They asked for the information when they were trying to adopt, and before they were told that they would be matched with the children. First, they could not get information on two small brothers. They were ultimately asked to go to a residential to get to know more about them. They went with their little girl and suffered a horrendous experience because they had not been told about the extent of the two small children's needs. It was upsetting for the boys, the little girl and the parents.

The parents had another disappointment when they tried to adopt a small girl from another authority in the London conurbation. They were desperate for up-to-date information but were stalled. They also felt that they were being criticised for asking for such information. They were told over the phone, without explanation, that they were not successful. They felt guilty about that.

Prospective adopters need good-quality information throughout the process, not only when the adoption order is made. When prospective parents want to make a

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lifetime's commitment, they are entitled to say, "This child is beyond our capacity, but we still feel that there are children in care whom we could adopt, love and care for." They should not feel bad about that, but they do. As I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), there are more children in care than there are prospective adopters, and we should not alienate but encourage them.

I cannot make the point about lack of information strongly enough. I appreciate that it will be included in the guidance, but it will be interesting to know the number of complaints about lack of information when the complaints mechanism is set up. Information is fundamental to successful adoption.

On resources, the Government have pledged £66 million over three years to support the changes. Anxiety has been expressed about whether that is sufficient to maintain the objectives over that length of time. How was the figure originally reached? Will it be regularly assessed until 2004–05 to ensure that the resources are sufficient? Can the taskforce make observations about the adequacy of the funding as the system gets going?

In March 2001, 55,900 children were in care. In 1997–98, 3.3 per cent. of children in care were adopted. In 2000–01, that had increased to 5.2 per cent. Two thirds of the children were under five, and a little more than 5 per cent. were 10 or older. As I said earlier, many adoptions of children in the older group currently break down. In the year to March 2001, a child spent on average two years and nine months in care before adoption. About a third were in care for three years or more before being adopted.

Those statistics are shocking, but the Bill and measures already taken will do much to improve the situation. It is much to be welcomed. Ultimately, practice on the ground will be pivotal in ensuring that significantly more looked-after children are placed in secure and loving homes, grow up to feel valued and needed and are able to take their place in society, but I commend the Bill.

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