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8.15 pm

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): I congratulate the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) on his maiden speech. Interestingly, he chose to speak in the debate on adoption and managed to refer much to rural affairs, whereas I made my maiden speech on rural affairs and managed to speak about adoption, so perhaps we have something in common.

Adoption raises strong feelings and emotions. After all, it is about our very identity—our families are important to us all. I talked about my father in my maiden speech, and several other hon. Members spoke about their fathers in theirs. We share physical similarities with our families. I have met adopted adults who say that they felt like strangers in their adoptive family because they did not look like the people whom they lived with. They felt that physically and, perhaps, in respect of their aptitudes. We should not rush into thinking that adoption can easily resolve the problems of many children.

I have probably betrayed in my previous interventions that I have had long experience working in social services, and I believe strongly that, where children cannot live with their own family, adoption provides stable families where children can feel a sense of permanence and grow up.

In any legislation on adoption, we need to recognise all three aspects of the adoption triangle. As has been made clear time and again in the debate, adoption is, above all, about children and their needs, but we must not neglect the needs of birth parents and their families, or the needs of adoptive parents and their families. Ensuring that all the interests are addressed is not easy, but we must seek to do so.

I welcome the opportunities that have been taken in the Bill to bring adoption legislation into line with other measures and practices and to deal with other problems in legislation and child care practice. For example, as other hon. Members have said, the welfare of the child should be paramount and the welfare considerations have to be set out. The Children Act 1989 was enacted 10 years ago this month, so it is time for legislation that takes account of those points.

I also welcome the fact that, under the Bill, local authorities should have a clear plan about the adoption services that they will provide, so long as that forms part

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of the existing children's planning requirements and is not additional to them. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), I welcome the replacement of freeing orders with placement orders, because they have been a huge problem in recent years with delays and the consequences for birth parents. However, such legislation is complex, and I hope that the Committee will consider in detail how placement orders will work in practice.

The clauses on parental responsibility will improve matters for unmarried fathers, allowing them to gain parental responsibility more easily, but, crucially, they will provide an alternative way for step-parents to gain parental responsibility, while leaving the legal relationship to both parents intact.

Adoption support services have been well discussed. I welcome the assessment for those services and, in particular, the additional money that is being spent, but as has been said, the concern is that the amount spent might vary in different areas.

It is tremendously important to recognise that adoption involves a lifelong commitment. Children who are placed at the age of three, seemingly without any problems, will inevitably experience more difficulties in adolescence because of their earlier experiences than children who have always lived with their natural families. To have services that adoptive parents can approach without stigma, without feeling that they have failed or thinking that the child is at risk of being taken back into care is crucial. Not only must those services be properly funded, we must consider how they are organised. There may well be a strong role for the voluntary sector.

Meeting the needs of children today and into the future is important. We have heard that legislation on adoption is introduced only once in a generation, and we are here to consider such legislation. Most children who require adoption today are from the care system. They have complex needs and they are often older children. We need to ensure that there are sufficient adopters available for them.

We have heard much about the delay in placing children and I want to draw attention to a significant aspect of that problem. When the Children Act 1989 came into force in 1991, considerable effort was put into moving children through the system. Good outcomes were achieved and children were moved through the system quite quickly. Over the years, the process has become much more complex and I was greatly concerned by the fact that the courts would—often at the request of parents' solicitors or guardians ad litem—ask for detailed assessments from psychologists or psychiatrists while disregarding the information that social workers could already bring to the process.

It was galling when the report of a psychologist, which might be produced with three months' delay and at excessive cost, said exactly the same as the report of the social worker who had known and worked with the family for several years. That problem must be tackled. In the areas where I worked before the general election, some of the judiciary attempted to deal with it. We must ensure that that happens much more widely.

I welcome the proposal for a national adoption register, but it is still not clear how it will relate to the existing consortiums in which good adoption agencies have put in place arrangements to ensure that there can be an

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exchange of adopters between areas. That would help avoid the cases mentioned earlier in which people could not adopt a child from the same area because of contact issues or because an exchange of photographs had taken place. I am not clear how the arrangements that already exist relate to the national adoption register, and we must also consider inter-agency fees.

I especially welcome the special guardianship orders, which will meet the need of some children for stability and security. Research has shown that the sense of permanency that a child has in a relationship—and not the fact that a child is adopted—determines the outcome. A child who feels permanently part of a foster family can and will do as well as a child who is adopted. Orders that will give people who care for children day to day the responsibility for decisions are important.

Unmarried couples will be able to have an order made for special guardianship, and that creates an anomaly for unmarried adopters. We need to recognise that society today is different. Some people have a philosophical objection to getting married, and I know that some people who had lived together for several years got married solely to become adopters. In a process that relies much on honesty and trust, the state should not be asking people to go through a ceremony in which they do not believe simply so that they can become adopters. The issue is those people's commitment to each other and to the child, not whether they are married.

We have heard much about poor practice. It is sad that Members of Parliament often get to hear about cases only when things have gone wrong. I have seen much good practice over the past few years and, in my experience, common sense is as common among social workers as it is among other professionals, probably including MPs. Adoption work involves much common sense and, in the area where I chaired an adoption panel, it was not unusual to have adopters who smoked or who were overweight. The medical practitioner on the panel would always issue the regular cautions and we would not place a child with asthma or a chest infection with a smoker. Smoking, however, was not a bar to the process.

Similarly, age was not considered to be a bar to adoption. Our main concern was whether prospective adopters were likely to live until the child reached the age of 18 and thus see the child grow up. That gave us the leeway to consider people in their early 50s as adopters. As we know from the experience of hon. Members, it is not unusual for men to become fathers in their 50s.

On religion, we have heard about how we should avoid political correctness. However, in my experience, one is often so desperate to find an adopter for a child of a complex background—one parent might be British and the other from an ethnic minority—that one does not take a politically correct approach. One looks for the best possible match and for people who can meet the child's religious, linguistic and cultural needs even if they are not necessarily of the same religion. I cannot refer to individual cases, but such decisions are taken in practice. We should not get carried away with the view that social workers and adoption panels are all terribly politically correct and seek pure solutions; that is not the case.

Despite my view that social workers and adoption agencies generally use their common sense, it is important that the adoption process is fully transparent. The public need to understand what goes on and how a decision can

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be reviewed if they are unhappy about it. People who put themselves forward to adopt feel incredibly vulnerable because they must disclose much personal information. If we want more people to come forward, we must ensure that they understand the processes involved and why they are asked about their experiences of growing up. They should be empowered through the process so that they understand that we are trying to ensure that they are matched appropriately with a child and that the needs of all are met.

I want to refer briefly to the Government's commitment to increase the number of children adopted. I sought to achieve that laudable aim in my work where appropriate. However, I am concerned about the statistics. Although they give a general idea of how well a local authority is performing, it is difficult to be exact. The figure is compiled by comparing the number of children who were adopted in a specific local authority in one year with the number who remained in care on 31 March of that year, excluding those who had been adopted.

The authority that I worked in before I was elected had on average 120 children in care. However, throughout a year the total number of children who came into and out of care was nearer 180. Some of them were never going to be candidates for adoption. They might have come into care for short periods only and were often successfully rehabilitated home. To take the figure of success as the number of children who were adopted as a proportion based on one day of the year can give a misleading picture, especially if the number of children is as small as 120. In that authority, a large number—six, I think—were adopted in April. Had they been adopted in March, the proportion would have changed significantly. Although that may be an indicator, it can be misleading to get hung up on the target or the actual number.

I also welcome the suggestion that the Bill should include private fostering.

Overall, I welcome the Bill. It contains many measures that will improve the lives of children and their families, including those who need adoption, those who are already adopted and those for whom security and permanence are important but adoption is inappropriate. People who speak out and who lobby on the subject are seeking what is in the best interests of some of our most needy children. I trust that as this positive Bill proceeds, debate and thorough consideration will ensure that it is improved even further.

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