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7.42 pm

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): I congratulate the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) on his maiden speech. It was amusing and interesting, and I wonder whether he will practise magic tricks like his predecessor. I was also interested to hear his reference to the Lotus car factory in his constituency, because I have the TVR factory in mine. Perhaps after his visit to Lotus we can compare the vehicles, although I admit that I did not actually climb into one on my visit to TVR and I certainly did not drive one away. I also congratulate him on choosing this important debate for his maiden speech. He highlighted some issues that I shall address shortly.

I support the Bill and its purpose in reforming adoption law, especially the aims of improving the performance of the adoption services and enabling more children to enjoy a stable family background. I had the pleasure of speaking in the debate in the spring on an earlier version of the Bill, so I am pleased that the revised Bill has been introduced so quickly after the general election.

In the intervening period, I have talked to my local adoption agencies to see how much has changed since I served on Lancashire county council's adoption panel. Some things have changed and some have remained the same, but the issues that were relevant to me as a member of an adoption panel all those years ago are still relevant to the aims of the Bill and the changes that it seeks to make.

I recollect that one major problem for the adoption panel on which I served was that there were too few babies and too many adopters who only wanted babies. That has not changed. One of the adoption agencies in my constituency told me that they had just one approved adopter who was willing to take children up to five. They had not a single approved adopter for children over five, but three quarters of the children on their list waiting for placement were over five. That is an enormous mismatch. To make matters worse, an appallingly high percentage of the children on the list suffer from serious health problems. Many have been born to mothers with drug and alcohol problems, or other problems, so even the babies on the list were not "attractive" to the prospective adopters who wanted babies.

The challenge to the Government in achieving the commendable targets that they have set for the legislation is to attract more adopters who are suitable to adopt the children who are now waiting on the list and who

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desperately need families. That will not be an easy task. Most people still think of adoption as involving babies and have a rosy image of the child they will have and the family life they will enjoy. However, as many other hon. Members have pointed out, the majority of children presenting for adoption are older and many have special needs, be those arising from disability, ill health or the trauma of their background.

I would be interested to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister about any initiatives to recruit more prospective adopters. Like many other people, I watched with interest the advertisements for the police in which stars of the small screen urged people to become police officers and described the importance of the job. It is also important to attract adopters for the children who are languishing in the care system, so let us have an exciting recruitment campaign for their sakes.

I also recollect well the financial pressures experienced by the adopters and by the agencies dealing with adoption. I therefore welcome the additional funding announced by the Government in the White Paper, but it is important to emphasise that adoption is an expensive process for councils. The payment of inter-agency fees and the costs of finding and supporting families can reach £16,000 a year per placement. The paradox is that the more successful a local authority is in recruiting families, and in dealing with other agencies to support those families, the more it costs. I hope that Ministers will consider carefully the extra money that will be made available. The £66 million sounds like a lot of money, but it may not meet all the needs that the Bill will generate.

It will also be important to consider the financial consequences for prospective adopters. If we want to recruit more prospective adopters, we need to take into account the fact that some people will need financial support, especially if they are to care for special needs children, children with disabilities or sibling groups. I hope that we will take those factors into account.

When I was on the adoption panel, I remember considering form F—and I have a copy here. It highlights all the areas that social workers have to consider when assessing prospective adopters. Other hon. Members have already mentioned the importance of appropriate assessments of prospective adopters. Most of the social work reports that I saw concentrated on why the individual or couple wanted to adopt, how they saw their role as adopters and how they thought that they could cope. The new form, however, emphasises competencies, some of which are highly commendable. The first requirement, under the heading "Caring for children", refers to

How do prospective adopters prove they have that wonderful competency? There is a long list of requirements, but the one that stood out referred to

I wish somebody would tell me how that can be assessed, especially as a social worker must not only give evidence but identify gaps and develop an action plan.

Social workers are often accused of making prospective adopters jump through hoops to achieve the desired end. I worry that some of the areas that social workers

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are assessing and the extremely detailed range of competencies that are required may overwhelm many people. We must ensure a careful balance, with a thorough assessment procedure that identifies the skills necessary to be able to care for the sort of children who are now presented for adoption that does not put off people who could and should come forward as prospective adopters.

There have been changes over the years but mistakes are still made. Some months ago a constituent came to see me about a Child Support Agency problem. She was having great difficulty in getting any money out of the father of her children. She told me about the violent relationship that she had been in and also that her husband, who is now on his third marriage, had been approved as an adopter. She expressed concern that a man who had court orders against him for harassment, who was not allowed to see the children of his first or second marriages because of his violent behaviour, had been approved as an adopter, and that he and his new wife had adopted three children.

This had occurred in the early 1990s. I contacted the local authority—which was not in Lancashire, I hasten to add—about the issues that they had taken into account and whether they had looked into this man's background. The adoption agency had not contacted his second wife, the children, the doctor, the police or anyone who had had any dealings with him. I sent the agency copies of court records detailing the man's awful behaviour. There were even taped 999 calls from this poor woman, made as her ex-husband was beating her up. None of that was known by the adoption agency. So although in my long experience on an adoption panel I saw immensely detailed assessment forms asking all sorts of questions, in this case the right questions were not asked.

Perhaps the key is not to have very long forms but to ask the right questions to ensure that we have the information that we need to reassure ourselves about the ability of prospective adopters to do the job. People who are not suitable to look after children must not slip through the net. We should remember the case highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper). Poor John Smith died, aged only four, at the hands of his prospective adopters.

One area in which I am pleased to see some improvement since my days on an adoption panel is the time scale for dealing with adoption matters. I spoke in an earlier debate of my concern for five, six or seven-year-olds who came to the panel for adoption and were much more difficult to place. For many families, a breakdown had occurred when the children were babies, when they would have been snapped up by adoptive parents all over the country. However, the social workers, in following the requirements of the Children Act 1989, attempted to reintegrate the children with their families. Those attempts failed, the children went back into care, the social workers tried again and failed. Years went by as the children's plans were disrupted by reintegration attempts. The children were disturbed by the time they appeared on our books for adoption, which made it much more difficult to find prospective adopters. I am therefore pleased that the Government have new guidelines on improving the time scale for considering cases.

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Social workers in Blackpool who deal with the adoption services operate as part of the Manchester consortium, which they find helpful in identifying prospective adopters. It is also one of the pilot areas implementing the new national standards. Although those social workers welcome the new timetable and the speeding up of procedures, they are concerned that placing a child within six months might be fine for a 10-month-old but more difficult when it comes to placing a 10-year-old. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State consider whether that time scale is realistic in all cases? Perhaps we cannot be hard and fast in all cases, although I urge that there are no built-in delays, as I have seen the result.

There are sometimes delays in adoption medicals. Many of the children who present for adoption in Blackpool come from families who have moved into the town and whose records are held elsewhere. Simply getting medical and other records from local and health authorities elsewhere in the country can be time consuming. However, those are not insuperable problems. They should not distract us from the Government's excellent initiatives in setting national standards, which are an important step towards introducing national practice standards for social workers. The Government have commendably legislated to introduce quality standards in all other sectors—day care, children's homes and old people's homes—but the commissioning of services needs to be considered in more detail to ensure nationally defined standards so that wherever children and prospective adopters live, acceptable standards will be implemented.

I wish to emphasise the point that I made in an earlier intervention. Although improving adoption services is vital, adoption is only one part of the wider picture and will not be suitable for all children. I welcome the proposals in the legislation for the special guardianship orders, but for some children long-term foster care or residential care is the appropriate placement. That is certainly true for many older children; many teenagers have experienced a traumatic family life, when either their own or a foster family could not cope with them. Such children respond to the communal setting of a residential care home where they are supported by qualified staff.

Finally, I pay tribute to those social care staff who support children across the range. They work extremely hard, offering support to children and families in need, to foster carers, to prospective adopters and to children who are in a residential setting. Usually, we hear about their hard work only when something goes wrong, but in 99.9 per cent. of cases nothing goes wrong and they do an amazingly good job with clients who are often difficult. Those staff deserve our support. Many of the Bill's provisions will offer the social care profession much needed support, so I commend the measure to the House.

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