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4 Nov 2002 : Column 71—continued

6.45 pm

I think that the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Wakefield and supported by others are sound. They offer hope and could make the situation better. I believe that what we need in this debate is less prejudice and more fairness. We should aspire to govern Britain as she is, not Britain as she was. We should govern on the basis of enduring principles adapted for

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proper application to the circumstances of the time. What we need are open minds, generosity of spirit and a readiness to understand the point of view of others. For goodness' sake, let us try to think outside the box—the way in which we, our party members or others who think or live like us, would naturally react. I am concerned about those damaged, bereft, neglected and vulnerable children, and I am not prepared to pass up any practical opportunity that might enable us to make their lives better.

It has been a privilege to serve in the shadow Cabinet over the past 14 months under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith). I am grateful to him for the opportunities that he has given to me. I hope that I have made some very modest contribution, and I look forward to supporting him and my party in the Lobbies and on these Benches in the weeks, months and years ahead.

I conclude simply by thanking my hon. and right hon. Friends for the courtesy and understanding that they have shown me on the occasion of the decision that I have felt compelled to make.

Liz Blackman: I commend the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) for his fine speech. At any event, my speech was going to be very short and to the point, but I have since revised it to being extremely brief. By this stage of the debate, the main points will have been aired, but I want to emphasise a couple of points that are worth either the repeating or the sharing.

Although it sounds extremely crude to say so, I believe that the issue is about supply and demand. It is about demand for good-quality parents to come forward. Currently, the supply of such parents does not match the demand of children: notably those who are languishing in local children's homes, as the hon. Member for Buckingham said. That must be at the forefront of our minds. It has been suggested that 5,000 children are in care. That number could even be slightly higher, but every one of those children is a child without a safe, secure and loving context. The longer those children stay in children's homes, the longer they will have to learn as a norm the worst ways of children who are older than them, who got into the system before them, and who are even more abused and rejected than the younger ones who are coming through.

That is the issue; it is about encouraging good-quality parents to come forward and offer those children hope. That is what the children try to cling to. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) spoke movingly about children who never saw anybody come forward and make an offer to adopt them or even express interest in them so as to raise a little hope or start the process.

There are two main reasons why supply and demand do not match one another. One of them is the profile of the children, about which I and many other hon. Members have talked. They are not cuddly babies any more, but challenging children, many of whom have special needs. The other factor that has not helped is the legislation under which we are currently working, which is 25 years old. Any legislation that is 25 years old has difficulties keeping up with the pace of change. Adoption legislation is no exception. The Bill is an

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excellent piece of legislation, but the issue about unmarried parents and same-sex couples is not a bolt-on concept. It is not something that can be ignored while the rest of the Bill sails through, everything being all right and supply meeting demand.

It is crucial to attract more good-quality parents and to widen the pool. Failing that, we are talking a good talk but we are not solving the problem. If we do not adopt that approach, we shall find in two years' time after this wonderful debate that there are the same statistics. That is not what we should be about.

If we do not accept the amendments, we shall be saying to the child, XYou are not entitled or allowed to have a legal relationship with both the adults in your life who provide you with a loving, caring home. You are allowed only one." I think back quite a long way. If I had been in that situation as a teenager—perhaps a damaged teenager or a stroppy teenager—I would have exploited it to the maximum. At the same time, I would have felt insecure. The message that is given to adults who are coming forward to offer their parenting skills—this applies especially to the one who is not adopting the child—is that they are not quite up to the mark. They feel that they are being told, XYou are not quite up to the mark. We do not value you in the same way as we value your partner."

Adults go through a rigorous selection process. We marvel and are delighted when such parents produce wonderful, secure and loving homes for children through adoption. However, the basic message is, XCarry on as you were doing and as you are doing, but we ain't going to recognise you." That is not only a matter of equality. Indeed, it is a practical matter. It is one that sends a wrong signal and will not result in more parents coming forward. It is the reason why few parents have come forward who are in an unmarried relationship or who are part of a single-sex couple.

Opposition Members, especially those who are against the amendments, have said that about 90 to 95 per cent. of couples who are adopting are married. That is not surprising. One of the main messages being given out by current legislation—I hope that future legislation will not do so—is, XYou are not quite valued in the same way as your married neighbours." The situation is wrong from a practical point of view as well as in terms of equity.

I was extremely concerned by the veiled threat of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench—in fact, there was not much veiled about it—when he suggested that there is a severe danger that the proposed legislation, as a package, will not pass through Parliament if things go wrong for him tonight. I hope that I have misinterpreted his remarks. The hon. Gentleman seemed to be saying, XIf we do not get a resolution that goes our way, the Bill will be in danger of collapsing." Obviously we are faced with prorogation. I hope that what the hon. Gentleman suggests is not the case.

The Bill is a fine piece of proposed legislation. With others on both sides of the Chamber, I have been heavily involved with it. However, it will be a fine piece of legislation only if it is implemented in full and if we can get additional prospective caring and loving parents into the system that offers many damaged children a real opportunity and a real chance.

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Mr. Brazier: It is a privilege to have the opportunity again to speak on adoption. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), who has been closely concerned with the Bill throughout its consideration.

I shall start with two general points. First, I support all those on both sides of the Chamber who have said that it is an excellent Bill. I have been campaigning for six years for the adoption of children who are in care. I have looked with horror at the extraordinary spectrum. When the campaign started, fewer than 1 per cent. of children in care in many local authorities were adopted. Some of the best authorities were achieving an adoption rate of more than 12 per cent. Behind these bleak statistics there are many horrifying cases.

The measures in the Bill have been ably listed by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton). They range from the introduction of the national register to the provisions to speed up the current desperately slow court procedure. So many lawyers are calling for a faster process. There are also the guidelines for social workers and adoption panels. There is so much positive material in the Bill that will improve the chances of children in care being adopted.

Secondly, I shall draw the interest of the House to a case that may be of use in developing regulations. An especially horrifying case was put before the all-party group on adoption, the details of which I have sent to the Secretary of State, which concerned an adoption that had broken down. By chance, it involved one of the right hon. Gentleman's constituents, and I received a most courteous reply about it. The father who adopted the child was a social worker and was familiar with working with children. The case illustrates the extreme importance of psychiatric assessments in cases where allegations are made against parents. In the instance to which I am referring, the allegations were made by a deeply damaged girl after 10 years of successful adoption. She made terrible allegations that were proved to be entirely false. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for agreeing to examine the case. In considering the Bill on a broad spectrum, we never discussed proper psychological assessments after, tragically, adoption has started to break down.

Members on both sides of the House—not least my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), in his powerful speech—have acknowledged that we are talking not about the rights of adults. Instead, the issue is about the interests of the child. I was privileged to serve on the Special Standing Committee under the extremely able chairmanship of the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), who managed to combine impartiality for most of the time while making his own powerful points when he wanted to do so. I believe that there was only one organisation that argued against the provision that the rights of the child should be paramount. That was the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, which wanted to enter a caveat. Basically, however, almost all organisations accepted that children's rights should be paramount. I think that every Member who has contributed to the debate agrees that that is common ground.

We are dealing in many instances with desperately damaged children. There is one case from my constituency surgery that involves two little boys, which

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illustrates the baggage that children bring with them. The two children were unconnected except that they had the same adoptive parents. From memory, they were aged six and seven when they were adopted. One child had been pushed out into the cold so often that he suffered severe frostbite in his feet. He had to be treated for gangrene and came close to amputation. The other child had been kept locked in a cellar for so long that he had no speech skills.

It is against that background that we must ask how we can best help such children. No one in the Chamber has any doubt that those of us who accept the argument that I am advancing on the Opposition Benches feel every bit as strongly about doing well for these children as those who oppose the argument.

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