Adoption and Children Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Dawson: I should like to say briefly how much I welcome the clause, which is one of the most important in an important Bill. Subsection (1) states:

    ''Each local authority must continue to maintain within their area a service designed to meet the needs''

of many people, and it proceeds to list them. That is a vital step. We have not heard it today, but the Opposition and groups from outside Parliament have issued us with a counsel of despair about local authorities and adoption services. The clause is a vote of confidence in local authorities and a way of signifying that the most important adoption services for children in care lie with local authorities, which as corporate parents have the fundamental responsibility to look after children who are placed in care voluntarily or by care order. Local authorities must

Column Number: 577

maintain that adoption service, because adoption must be developed much more to meet the needs of children in care.

Kevin Brennan: Does my hon. Friend agree that a key and welcome feature of the clause, which is different from its previous incarnation before the general election, is the provision to provide services to natural parents? Does he also agree that that significantly enhances the previous proposals?

Mr. Dawson: My hon. Friend anticipates my comments. It is a tremendous step forward. There were some elegant contributions to the evidence-giving sittings from organisations involved in counselling and supporting adopted children and birth relatives in what can be a heart-breaking quest for both sides. It is essential that this element has been added to the Bill.

So much of our discussion in Committee is so dry and formal, when we are talking about a deeply human and personal, but in many ways joyous, process. The clause, and the significant resources that the Government are allocating to adoption services and to care services for young people in general, marks a fundamental step forward in how we look after young people. I look forward to the development of a vast range of proactive services, so that adoptive parents, young people and advocacy services are encouraged to work much better with local authorities than they have in the past. Public and private services should come together to meet the sometimes profound needs and difficult circumstances of adopted young people and their parents. I am optimistic about the clause, and we should all wish it well.

Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that I agree with almost everything that he said. He is right to say that in many ways clause 3 is the heart of the Bill. He will not take it amiss if I say that the issue of resourcing is central. I say that without hypocrisy, as I have argued repeatedly in area after area on value for money and on keeping public spending down where it is unnecessary.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) was Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and it is no exaggeration to say that he had the most professionally parsimonious job in the whole of the House of Commons. He also loves to engender his personal reputation for parsimony, even to the extent that in all the meetings on adoption in his office, we were not once offered a drink. I frequently tease him about that. He said that resourcing for adoption is the one area where he would be willing to consider an almost blank cheque purely for the reasons of finance, even leaving aside all the human considerations that bring every member of the Committee to these deliberations.

The evidence of long-term savings is overwhelming in every part of Government spending, from special needs in schools to the criminal justice system. There are such huge returns to be made from moving children from unsatisfactory and frequently turbulent

Column Number: 578

parts of the care system into homes where they can be adopted that there is a strong case for generous resourcing.

Mr. Shaw: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important to preface his remarks about the success that adoption offers so many children in care, even on the targets that the Government have set —which will be a tall order to achieve—which we all support? Let us not forget that the majority of children remain in care with foster carers and that social services endeavour to return them to their natural parents, which is the optimum option for them. In mooting the idea that the Bill is a blank cheque for adoption, let us not imply that the majority of children who remain in foster care are therefore condemned to second-class opportunities.

Mr. Brazier: Of course, no child in care should be treated as second class. Children in care are our responsibility. We as Parliament and the State are their parents. The hon. Gentleman is right. Although I agree with him that every child in care is extremely important, the point about adoption is that it has been under-recognised in the past, and to the Government's credit, they have acknowledged that in bringing forward the Bill. Both the academics who gave evidence made the point that, in most cases, if one leaves aside the large number of children who come through care for short periods, adoption is the best option for those children who have been in care for a substantial period.

It is important to remember, as the Prime Minister's review stated, that even the modest improvement in the adoption figures and the ambitious target that the Government have rightly set would bring the bald statistics only up to a par with the situation in America. The American care system has a much higher proportion of children with difficulties for adoption than ours.

Ms Munn: The way in which statistics are calculated has always been a mystery to me. Adoption statistics are based on the number of children adopted within any local authority in a calendar year as a proportion of children in care on 31 March of that year. That does not tell us how many children who may have been eligible for adoption have been adopted. It gives a proportion of a figure on one day in which the overall number of children who have been adopted is not included. It is a proxy measure of achievement, rather than an actual measure of how many children might have been adopted and how many children were actually adopted. Because it is only a proxy measure, we must take care in comparing that figure with those in other countries.

Mr. Brazier: I suffer from having been a statistician for a number of years.

Mr. Shaw: So have we.

Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman is in danger of slipping below his normally high standard of debate. It is only half-past 6.

Column Number: 579

The hon. Lady's point deserves an answer. The gist of it is that until three or four years ago, the statistics on adoption to which she refers were not collected on a fully comparable basis. Indeed, a small number of local authorities, mostly the worst adopters, failed to furnish statistics at all. To the credit of the Minister's immediate predecessor, that practice was cracked down on and every local authority provides statistics on the same basis.

The defect that the hon. Lady mentions is true in theory. It is a proxy measure, but having struggled with the figures for some years, I can say that in practice, it is a pretty good one. The proportion adopted in any one year as a fraction or percentage of the total number in care at a snapshot point is a pretty good measure. It is also broadly comparable with the statistics gathered in the league table in the Prime Minister's original review.

That showed that we do better than most other European countries, but we are well behind America. As I mentioned to the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford, the Americans have a much higher proportion of children who are difficult to adopt, even though our proportion seems very large. Therefore it is by no means over-ambitious for us to aim to reach their adoption level. Indeed, the Americans are trying hard to raise their own adoption level.

6.30 pm

The statistics could be improved in one area, and this is relevant to the resourcing available under clause 3. It would be useful to have a second statistic that showed the proportion of children who had been in care for more than a certain period, although a lack of international comparisons would mean that it was often availably only for internal comparisons. I would argue that that period should be relatively short. According to the way in which Government and, indeed, academic thinking is moving, we should consider those who have been in care for more than six months, rather than only the long end of the spectrum. I hope that that answers the hon. Lady's point.

Tim Loughton: I want to take issue slightly with the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre. He made some relevant points about the clause, although he might have gone slightly over the top. He also said that our deliberations had largely been dry and formal. That is an unfair reflection: our deliberations have been largely moist and informal. [Laughter.]

Mr. Dawson: I take it all back. I look forward to much more moistness.

Tim Loughton: On that basis, we shall move swiftly on.

Jacqui Smith: I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre, who brought us back to the fundamental reason for our being here: to ensure that we improve the legislative framework around the adoption of children. As he said, that is a very important, personal and individual feature.

Column Number: 580

The clause ensures that we move away from the patchy provision of adoption support services across the country. The new provisions on adoption support will tackle that inconsistency. For the first time, the Bill places a clear duty on local authorities to make and participate in arrangements to provide adoption support services, which will include financial support.

We will use those provisions to deliver on the commitment to a new framework for adoption support services and financial support. That will be developed with stakeholders and published for consultation in the spring. We shall back up the national framework with extra funding to ensure that many more adoptive families receive the support that they need. On that basis, I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

Assessments etc. for adoption support services

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 11 December 2001