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8.17 pm

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): I particularly welcome the Bill, and it has been a pleasure to be involved with it during my first year in Parliament. Sometimes it is hard to believe that, only 18 months ago,

20 May 2002 : Column 105

I was in the position of making exactly the kind of decisions dealt with in the Bill. They were some of the most important and difficult decisions that I made during my social work career.

I have always been a strong advocate for adoption. It is not the answer for all children, but it is a positive option for very many. I was in social work for a long time—I shall spare the House the details of the length of time, because this is not a game about who has been in social work the longest—and I also know that many children experience problems, particularly in their teenage years. It is important for us not only to provide support for those children and their families, but to do so in a way that does not stigmatise. The Bill does a lot to put in place adoption services that will be there for children and their families and will take away the stigma and the concern that so many families experience that asking for help may mean admitting failure or the risk of a child feeling insecure, or that they might again end up in care.

Some of those services are particularly important at this stage, because many of the children looking for placements today have enormous psychological and emotional difficulties, and if support can be provided to them and their families, there is a much better chance that they will find appropriate adoptive placements.

It was a particular pleasure in Committee to hear Members of all parties arguing for more resources for social services—of which I have of course been a supporter for many years. Unlike some Opposition Members, however, I would say that the Government have done a great deal for social services. The extra money that has been put in over the past few years has been extremely welcome.

It is a great pity that, on Report, some Opposition Members used throw-away lines about "politically correct" social workers, as if that were the norm. I hope that I and my fellow ex-social worker colleagues on the Labour Benches have demonstrated that we, too, can be conservative—albeit with a small C—and pragmatic, but that above all we have the interests of children at heart. In bringing adoption into line with the Children Act 1989 and making the needs of the child paramount, the Bill is extremely welcome.

Like everything else, social work practice moves on, and our understanding of adoption will increase. I hope that the Bill will provide a positive basis for the development of adoption practice which will benefit all those involved in the adoption triangle. More importantly, I hope that the publicity that has surrounded this Bill— I share the concerns of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) about the fact that only certain aspects have been publicised—will encourage more people to come forward as adopters.

It is right to say that there are very few babies available, but many older children need homes. I for one will never forget the teenager who argued on television last year that she should be given the chance to become part of a family. After all, real families are for life, not just for the duration of childhood. I sincerely hope that all children who need to be adopted will have that opportunity. I believe that this Bill should help that process.

8.21 pm

Sandra Gidley: This has been a long haul. There is much good about this Bill, but we seem to have been a long time getting to this stage. For some of us, the process

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started way before last year's election, when evidence gathering on the previous adoption Bill was destined to continue for many more sittings than just three, had the election not intervened. The Bill presented at the beginning of this Session was much improved on the one on which we had worked. I am pleased to say that the Bill now going to the House of Lords is an even greater improvement.

The spirit of co-operation and obvious dedication and commitment of most Members who served on the Committee has been heartening. By commitment, I do not mean commitment to a political party or a political ideology, but commitment to the Bill and to trying to get it right for the children who need such services.

I particularly appreciate the fact that the Bill has benefited from the Special Standing Committee process. What struck me powerfully during the evidence-gathering sittings was the huge consensus among a wide variety of agencies. It has been refreshing in some ways not to have had to balance the arguments of a wide range of vested interests. For the most part, people have spoken with one voice. That is simply because they are thinking of the child first. Hopefully, that feeling is shared among Members of all parties.

The Bill was also a welcome departure from what I understood to be the accepted practice of not selecting Members to scrutinise a Bill if they knew anything about the subject. As I said in Committee, Gyles Brandreth described in his diaries how he said to the Whips that he wanted to serve on a Bill concerning entertainment because he knew a lot about the subject, so they put him on a transport Bill. I have therefore been delighted that, to help us on our way, there have been several social workers—politically correct or otherwise—who have been able on occasions to say, "Get real; life's not like that," and to tell things how they are. They often couched that sentiment in different terms. I sincerely hope that we have got this Bill right, because if we have not, we will probably have to wait another 25 years for an opportunity to do so.

One problem, which has been highlighted, is that in some ways we have before us only the bones of the legislation. The flesh is yet to come, in regulations. That has presented some difficulties, as we have had to take a lot on trust, which is not always easy for an Opposition party. The fact that the regulations have not been available for scrutiny is a matter of regret. I therefore hope that, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has said, we shall have time to study the regulations and comment on them, and will not end up with rushed legislation.

I also want to comment on the timetabling. I am generally in favour of timetabling, but the Government must admit that they got it wrong with this Bill. Much of interest was not discussed fully in Committee owing to lack of time. In addition, we did not get the chance to get round to many issues of great interest that were timetabled for Report on Thursday. That was partly because proceedings on Report were dominated by one issue. That is regrettable, because it diluted the Bill's wider message. Hopefully, we will learn lessons and not chop and change things at the last minute just because they look as though they will fit in more conveniently as a result. I am pleased that on the whole the Government have listened and adapted to our concerns. There has been a lot of consultation and information from various Ministers,

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for which I thank them. It has been helpful to know that concerns have been taken on board and are being addressed.

It remains for me to wish the Government well with this Bill, for which there is support on both sides of the House. We hope that we will be consulted further, but the most important thing is that support is provided. Some of us have been banging on about this subject for some time. The fact remains that three years' funding was announced and allocated to adoption services in December 2000, but by the time that the Bill reaches the statute book, that funding will have disappeared. It would be good to have some commitment here and now that that funding will continue. Again, we must take such issues on trust.

None the less, at this stage, I hope that I am not being foolish and that I am proved right in trusting that the Government will provide the money. Money has gone into social services but has been aimed very much at services for older people, at the expense of children's services. That should not be allowed to continue. I wish the Bill well.

8.28 pm

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate. My first comments are most definitely that the Bill has been brilliantly piloted through the House by the Minister, and that it is long, long overdue.

The Bill has many qualities, foremost among which is that it places the child's needs at the centre of all processes. Importantly, in so doing, it places centre stage the needs of often very vulnerable children. This is indeed a very important Bill. For me, the interpretation of such needs ultimately means the achievement—hopefully after a short time—of placing all children in loving, stable homes. That is the aim of the Bill. I say that knowing that there are thousands of children longing and hoping to hear that they will be placed with an adoptive family and become a member of it. The fact that there are thousands of such children explains the urgency behind the Bill.

Alongside the needs of the child, an important characteristic of the Bill is its provision on care plans, which are to be followed and adopted by local authorities or voluntary agencies. Such plans will not only encapsulate a time frame but allow young people to comment on and direct the way in which the plan should be established. When that plan is not put in place within the time frame, a robust review by an independent body is available. For me, that is crucial.

I worked in care as a young woman, and I was overwhelmed by the number of children who seemed lost to the care system until they were 16, when, frankly, they were turned out with little support—if any. I hope and believe that the independent scrutiny will be robust and tough and that it will ensure that the best for the child is always achieved. Throughout our consideration, we have said again and again that the needs of the child are at the forefront. Those needs have been carefully determined and outlined, and we must achieve them.

One of the most important areas of the Bill—the debate about who wants to adopt and those who it is felt should have that privilege—hit the headlines in a way that most of us felt it should not have. It is a privilege to bring up

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a child and a privilege to be given the opportunity to bring up another person's child. Inevitably, there was a lot of tension around that issue, and perhaps it was always going to be the most difficult question for many people involved in considering the Bill.

For me, the introduction of new clause 13 helped to resolve that issue. It ably, knowledgeably and compassionately defined how we, as a group of people in this Chamber, should think about others who are, or who want to be, in the process of adopting a child. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), who introduced the new clause in a way that defined the real situation in which we all live in today's society. It extends legal rights to couples who seriously want to be involved in the adoption process—not one person, but all persons who want to bring up a child.

My hon. Friend acknowledged in the House a point that I have made time and again, as a Christian and a happily married female who has had the privilege of adopting: marriage and heterosexuality can offer the most loving and permanent home. I believe that mine has done so, but I make no prejudiced statement. I also believe that if social services and other bodies conclude, following a thorough investigation, that equally long-term non-marriage relationships between heterosexuals or homosexuals can also offer a permanent and loving home, those people should not be excluded from the right to enjoy the privilege of bringing up an adopted child.

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