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Sandra Gidley (Romsey): Unfortunately, I feel that the amendments are unnecessary, although I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). Everything that we need is written down in black and white in clause 1(2):

The court is considering the child who is being adopted and must put his or her interests first.

I was moved by the hon. Gentleman's example of a case involving twins, who might be split at birth, which would have a profound effect on them. Ultimately, however, the court must deal with the case before it and put that child first. When considering a placement for a child, the situation of siblings and half-siblings must be taken into account, but all those considerations cannot be paramount.

Similarly, amendment No. 1, which would downplay considerations of ethnicity and religion, is well meaning, but misguided. It is right and proper that some consideration should be given to the religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background of the child. However, that must not become an absolute credo. Perhaps that is what the amendment is aiming at. In the past, social workers have sought a perfect fit. In today's culturally diverse society, one could search in vain, for example, for someone who is one eighth Pakistani, three quarters Welsh and one eighth Scottish. What is far more important is that the child should find a place in a loving home that can provide the best care and love available for a child in need—nothing more and nothing less.

I am not a regular churchgoer, but I recognise that for some people acknowledgement of their religion is very important. If a person or a couple felt that they had to give a child up for adoption, the assurance that religion would be a prime concern would be powerful. Christians baptise their children at a very young age and would want to ensure that that commitment was honoured. They would believe that doing so was fundamental to the child's spiritual welfare. It is important that we retain the religious element, whatever the religion.

Having said that, the amendment would serve a purpose. When a social worker has to decide about a placement, I suspect that it is always a case of balancing all the complex factors and influences in an attempt ultimately to achieve what is right for the child.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Although I welcome the thinking behind the amendments tabled by my hon.

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Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), I cannot say that I support them. On amendment No. 162, my hon. Friend is right that the welfare of siblings is extremely important and I have also dealt with a number of harrowing constituency cases. None the less, those on the Opposition Front Bench support the view of almost all people concerned with adoption that the paramount consideration before a court must be the welfare of the child whose case is being considered. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) said, there is scope elsewhere to take account of the views of siblings.

I shall focus on amendment No. 1, which we tabled. Should we not get the assurances that we seek from the Government, I should like a separate vote on that amendment. Almost every critic of the adoption system has focused on the delays. It is extremely rare that an adoption goes through in the 12-month period that is now the Government's target. Sometimes, they can take three or four years. In most cases, they do not happen at all.

The reasons for the delay are many. One factor that is mentioned again and again is what the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, described as seeking the "perfect fit". No one in this House would disagree with clause 1(5) when it states that the court or adoption agency must pay

The Opposition's concern is that that consideration is being put on a par with subsection (3), which refers to delay, hence our amendment, which would ensure that subsection (5) should be

that is, the paramountcy and delay provisions.

I shall give the House two examples, the first of which made the national press. A single mixed-race woman of independent means was approved as an adopter. Through the adoption agency concerned she found a child who had been in care since she was a baby. Babies are the easiest children to place and it is disgraceful that there should have been such a delay in placing a baby. The child was two and a half years old at the time. Although the woman was of mixed race, it was a slightly different mixture from the child, but each of them had a middle eastern and a European element. The woman, however, was Christian and the baby came from an Islamic background. Islam has no tradition of adoption. Children who cannot be cared for by their own parents are normally looked after within the extended family. After a lengthy delay, the woman was turned down on both racial and religious grounds. By that time, the child had been in care for three years. No other adopter was in sight.

If a court were faced with that case, is clause 1, as drafted, clear? Is what Parliament intends clear—that delay must override those other considerations if necessary? I do not believe that it is and that is why we want those innocuous extra words added to make it clear which subsection overrides which—that delay is more important than those other factors.

Ms Munn: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the fact that one or two cases of that nature, which are indeed a cause for concern, get into the national press shows that common sense prevails for the vast majority of children? Children are placed in loving families that best meet their

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needs. If those families can match their cultural, linguistic and racial characteristics, that is the best case, but that is not achieved for the vast majority. Therefore, a good match is found and children are placed quickly in loving homes. To suggest that the paramountcy provision is not paramount is nonsense.

Mr. Brazier: I agreed with the last point made by the hon. Lady, for whom I have the greatest respect, but I could not disagree more strongly on these matters. Study after study in the past few years—including the Prime Minister's own review—has identified the delay that is endemic in the system as one of its greatest single weaknesses. The plain fact is that the vast majority of children in care—even those who have been in care for several years—are not satisfactorily adopted. The most recent figures that I have seen show that about 1,500 adoptive parents are still waiting for children. Therefore, I do not accept the hon. Lady's argument.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): I am sure that my hon. Friend supports the Government's aim to increase the number of these children who are adopted. Those of us whose friends have tried to adopt know that they have encountered bureaucratic difficulties and delays. Adoption is not an easy process for many people at present. Does he agree that if the Government could streamline that process and deal with the problem of delay, we would be well on the way to increasing the number of children adopted, which would be one practical measure to emerge from our proceedings?

2.30 pm

Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend is right. Indeed, the Government have stated that it is their purpose to deal with delay.

Let me give one more example. A couple who contacted the Adoption Forum lived in a racially mixed area of central London, which was reflected in their circle of friends. In 1996, they successfully adopted a seven-year-old white English boy into their family. In 1999, they applied to adopt his mixed-race older half-sister who wanted to live with them. The local authority concerned—I will not name it, but it has one of the poorest records on adoption and is at the bottom of the adoption league table—refused the placement on the grounds that she was of mixed race and the couple were white. The ruling has had a detrimental effect on their relationship with the son and, even more so, between the son and his sister. The girl remains in foster care and has suffered because of having to had move many times.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): We discussed that matter in Committee. One of the key things that we picked up from the evidence sessions, which were many and worth while, was that we do not want hard and fast rules when we deal with adoption. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the keys to increasing adoption to meet the Government's target of 40 per cent. is for adoptions to be successful? I do not want delays in the process, but it is crucial that we get assessments right. Nothing could be worse for a child than to be placed with an adoptive family and for that placement to break down. The consequences of that are perhaps even worse than a

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delay. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that assessment is crucial and that it is vital and paramount to take account of matters in the Bill?

Mr. Brazier: Assessment is important, but cross-racial adoptions do not always fail, a point repeatedly made by a number of Labour Members. The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety made that point when he was Minister of State, Department of Health. In the debate on the Adoption and Children Bill that fell just before the election, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) asked that Minister's successor, the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), to note that

The Minister replied:

I intervened to say:

the Minister

I then asked the Minister:

The Minister assured us:

All we want to do is to ensure that considerations are secondary to the paramountcy principle and the problem of delay.

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