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11.36 a.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health. The Statement is as follows:

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    that they cannot adopt simply because they are too old or too middle class. Blanket bans of this kind only have one effect--they fail to put the needs of children first. Families who do adopt children overwhelmingly do a brilliant job for those children. It is not an easy job because many of the children are not easy. They and their adoptive parents deserve more support.

    XAdoption services and adoption laws are in need of reform. The current 1976 Act is based on legislation that dates back to 1958; nor is it consistent with the Children Act 1989.

    XIn February this year my right honourable friend the Prime Minister launched a thorough review of adoption. He commissioned the Performance and Innovation Unit in the Cabinet Office to look at the evidence and make recommendations for action. The PIU report was published for consultation on 7th July this year. The report found that there was clearly scope for many more looked-after children to be adopted. The Prime Minister made it clear in July that the Government accepted some of its key recommendations. In particular, the Prime Minister announced that new legislation would be brought forward next year.

    XThe White Paper I am publishing today outlines the most radical overhaul of adoption law and practice in 25 years. New legislation will seek to place children's safety, welfare and interests at the heart of the adoption process. It will link adoption more closely with the principles of the Children Act; and it will extend the options courts have to secure a permanent family life for looked-after children. A new 'special guardianship' order will be created for those children who want a more legally secure permanent family than can be delivered through foster care or residence orders, but who do not want to sever all legal ties with their birth family.

    XA clearer legal duty will be placed on local councils to plan for and provide comprehensive support services for adoptive families. Families adopting children will be entitled to have their needs for support services properly assessed. They will have access to a comprehensive package of post-adoption support--including adoption allowances--in a way which is more consistent across the country. We are already consulting on introducing paid leave for adoptive parents; and for potential adopters whose application is rejected, we shall introduce a new right to an independent review.

    XLocal councils and voluntary adoption agencies will need to make substantial improvements to their adoption services. Some are already doing so. Last year the number of adoptions rose from 2,200 to 2,700. But much more needs to be done. New resources will be made available to produce better results. The Government will provide #66 million-worth of investment in local authorities over the next three years to help to transform adoption

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    services for children. In exchange for this cash, I shall expect to see clear improvements in performance.

    XIn the future we expect the majority of councils to do what the minority are already successfully doing--working collaboratively with other councils and local adoption agencies. Council performance on adoption will be more rigorously monitored--not least through the SSI and the Audit Commission. Where a council is persistently failing to deliver, I shall not hesitate to use my intervention powers to transfer its adoption services to a different agency.

    XAn adoption register for England and Wales will be established. It will match children with adoptive parents across the country where a local family cannot be found or where the child needs to move away from the local area. I am today issuing invitations to tender for the new register with a view to it becoming operational next summer.

    XThe courts too will need to improve their performance. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has been looking carefully at the causes of delay in children's cases. The White Paper sets out how we shall speed up adoption cases. In the coming year, the Lord Chancellor's Department will, first of all, increase the number of judges specifically trained to deal with family work, and make better use of the available expertise; secondly, set up pilots to evaluate the benefits of concentrating adoption work in specialist adoption courts with experienced judges and court staff; and, thirdly, work with the president of the Family Court Division on guidance to courts on better case management and take further steps to improve the way the courts deal with adoption cases.

    XNext year too the new Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service will be set up, bringing together services for children in one comprehensive agency, allowing them better to meet the needs of children.

    XThese changes in local courts and in local councils will not--by themselves--be enough to bring about the step change in adoption services that children need. So today I am also publishing for consultation the first ever set of national adoption standards. They will help to drive up the standards of service for children and adoptive parents in all parts of the country. The standards set challenging new targets to speed up adoption processes.

    XSix months after becoming looked-after continuously, every looked-after child will have an agreed plan for permanence. It may cover efforts to rehabilitate a child with their birth family, but where adoption is the plan for permanence, suitable adoptive parents should be found within a further six months. This will be a major improvement on the current situation. It will almost halve the average time it takes to find an adoptive family for the child. For foster parents who want to adopt a child and it is in the child's interests to do so, we shall go further. For foster carers' applications to adopt a child in

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    their care, where it is in the best interests of the child to do so, in future the application will be processed in just three months.

    XThe standards will also set out how prospective adopters will be welcomed and treated in an open and fair way. There will be no blanket bans on people because of their age, health or other factors. While it is clear, for example, that the best family for a child will be one that reflects their birth heritage--and certainly more needs to be done to recruit adopters from diverse ethnic backgrounds--no child should be denied loving adoptive parents solely on the grounds that the child and the parents have different racial or cultural backgrounds. The child's interest--their safety and well-being--will be the crucial factor in determining their adoptive parents. I hope that these measures will help us to treat adopters better and support them better so that we can attract more adoptive parents to adopt more children successfully.

    XIt is right that we are ambitious for these children. It is right that we are ambitious for the prospective families. There is no shortage of children looking for a stable, loving, permanent family. A 1999 report for my department found 2,400 children waiting to be adopted and 1,300 adopters waiting for children. Adoption must become a first-choice option for looked-after children who cannot return home. The White Paper therefore sets a new national target to deliver a minimum 40 per cent increase in lasting adoptions by the year 2005, although I hope that the measures that I have outlined today will help us to achieve a 50 per cent increase over that period. Our aim must be to give many hundreds more looked-after children the chance to live as a permanent member of a stable, secure and loving new family.

    XChildren get only one chance to grow up. A looked-after child should have the same life chance as any other child: a chance to belong; to have a stake; to get on in life. For too long too many have been denied these chances--the innocent victims of a system which has failed to meet their needs for a permanent secure loving family. It is a failure we would not tolerate for ourselves. We should not tolerate it for others. The reforms to adoption I have announced today will transform the life chances of hundreds, hopefully thousands, of children. They deserve no less. I commend our proposals to the House".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

11.49 a.m.

Earl Howe: My Lords, it is with more than my usual degree of warmth that I thank the Minister for coming to the House to repeat the Statement on the final day of the pre-Christmas Session. It is a great pity--although, of course, understandable--that not more noble Lords are present to listen to this extremely important set of announcements.

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Perhaps I may begin by saying that I greatly welcome almost everything that the Statement contains. The Minister will know that just before the 1997 general election the previous government had prepared a Bill in draft to reform the current adoption laws. Since the election, successive health Ministers, beginning most notably with Mr Paul Boateng, have devoted considerable effort to the same end and, I may say, on much the same lines.

I am in no doubt that adoption, fostering and the care system generally are, together, a pivotal area of social policy. What we do or fail to do for our looked-after children influences every aspect of society. We therefore owe it to them and to ourselves to put the system right where it is failing.

As the Minister has told us, a great deal in the system is failing. The Statement speaks of the variability of performance among local authorities in the numbers of looked-after children successfully placed with adoptive parents. That is putting it mildly. I have in front of me a table showing the percentages of children adopted under each local authority in 1999. Near the bottom of the league is Barnet, with 0.47 per cent and Lambeth, with 0.61 per cent. Twenty-seven local authorities score under 2 per cent. By contrast, at the top of the league come Warrington, with 9.03 per cent; York, 9.6 per cent; Middlesbrough, 10.86 per cent; and Sutton, with 13.74 per cent.

Why should this be, when it is plain to all who have had anything to do with this subject that children who grow up in a loving and supportive family progress, flourish and grow to adulthood in a way that children in care, with their disrupted lives, cannot hope to do?

Yet, at 31st March 2000, 58,100 children were being looked after. That was 5 per cent more than a year earlier. Although the rate of children entering care is now falling, children in the care system are staying there longer. What is striking about the statistics is the large number of children who are under one year of age when entering care. Many stay in care for years on end.

It is often said that behavioural problems and disabilities in children are what prevent more children being adopted. The truth is that the majority of children in care are of normal intelligence and do not have serious health problems, other than those that perhaps result from neglect while being looked after.

The Statement does not go so far as to use the phrase Xpolitical correctness", but it is entirely appropriate to cite misplaced theory and dogma as among the prime reasons for the failure to adopt more children from care. In many cases, social workers are neither trained nor resourced to cope with what is inevitably a very difficult set of decisions about a child's future welfare.

In particular, there is evidence that many are not aware of the implications for a child's development of attachment to an individual couple. The courts often introduce delay by insisting that birth parents have every possible chance to show themselves capable of caring for the child, even when those birth parents may have failed repeatedly to do so.

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I welcome the emphasis in the Statement on more and better training for judges in family courts. I also very much welcome the new legal duty to be placed on local councils to plan for and provide support for adoptive families and to produce plans for permanence for every looked-after child within six months of his or her entering the care system. I am delighted that there is to be a national adoption register and national standards. I am delighted that there are to be targets for delivery. It is excellent news that potential adopters whose application is rejected will have the right to seek an independent review. Above all, it is excellent that the needs and interests of children are to be the governing principles for the new measures. All these are measures for which my party has been enthusiastically pressing for some considerable time.

Will the Minister say a little more about the concept of special guardianship? I shall need to reflect further on the idea. I probably need convincing of the wisdom of divided legal rights in relation to a child with two sets of parents who may be pulling in opposite directions. When, and in what circumstances, do the Government envisage this mechanism being used? Secondly, what support is envisaged for adoptive parents and children? Often, a family needs help and advice well after the adoption has taken place.

Thirdly, we should not overlook the needs of parents who relinquish children for adoption as the result of unplanned pregnancies. Do the Government acknowledge the value of mother-and-baby refuges? Is it not highly regrettable that so few refuges exist? There is a lack of facilities for mothers considering adoption, which itself prevents infant adoption; and there is a reluctance among social workers to discuss adoption with women who are contemplating it. I cannot be alone among your Lordships in viewing the abortion statistics in England and Wales as an appalling testament to the attitudes towards unplanned pregnancy that are currently prevalent.

I turn finally to the issue of training, particularly training for social workers. Does the Minister agree that many social workers lack adequate training, not least in the field of child development? What measures will the Government take to improve training and to address the shortage of trained social workers in many parts of the country? Do they agree that more support needs to be given to voluntary adoption agencies, where much expertise resides?

I hope that legislation in this area can be brought forward at an early date. We on these Benches look forward to giving it our constructive support.

11.57 a.m.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I should like to strike the same festive note as the noble Earl in thanking the Minister warmly for repeating the Statement. Looked-after children suffer many disadvantages which children from stable homes do not; and they face a greater risk of criminality and homelessness later in life. Following the passage of the Children (Leaving Care) Act earlier this year, the

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proposals in the Statement are an extremely welcome approach to tackling the problem at its roots and minimising the number of children in long-term care. The Minister and the noble Earl cited the current adoption figures for children in care. Clearly, that performance is not good enough.

This is, however, an acutely difficult area of public policy. There are many issues relating to the rights of birth parents, the speed of care and adoption processes and the suitability of certain types of prospective adopters. The reasons quoted by social services departments for not allowing adoption have included being overweight, being over 35, being too middle-class, being the wrong race, and so on. The Government have steered an effective but principled course in making these recommendations and I warmly welcome them.

To some degree, there are challenges regarding implementation of the reforms. The history of government attempts to tackle these issues over the past few years is instructive. They might properly have been optimistic about the impact of a circular from Mr Boateng in August 1998; however, it became apparent that indirect management by circular was not enough--hence the Prime Minister's summit in April 1999. I pay tribute to him for his personal involvement in this matter. That was followed in July by the excellent report of the Performance and Innovation Unit. I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, in his place, in a sense seeing the birth of his child.

Clearly it became apparent that a more radical approach was required in tackling such issues. Hence we have the White Paper.

The underlying principles to be adopted are of the most fundamental importance. I welcome the commitment to legislation to bring adoption principles in line with those in the Children Act 1989. The essence of the decision on adoption must be the interests of the child: his or her needs and rights must be paramount. However, the consent of a natural parent is important, and that consent should be overridden only where the advantages are significantly greater for a child if consent is not forthcoming.

Quite often, the process followed as regards care orders, freeing orders and adoption is so delayed that the child is prejudiced. Some of the figures in the PIU report are quite startling. The process can take several years. As the Minister said, this can be an eternity for a young child and prevents the bonding that is so necessary with adoptive parents. Then there are the figures about multiple placements. Some 29 per cent of children in care had had four or more placements. Nearly one-fifth of placements fail. There are also, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, pointed out, massive variations in the time taken and in the performance of different local authorities.

I live in Lambeth, and London has been a particularly under-performing area. The fact is that the earlier a placement takes place, the more successful it is. That means that a fast process is vital. We certainly welcome the new combined one-year target

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within which care and adoption processes should take place. We also welcome other elements in the White Paper; for example, the pledge on improvements of performance by local authorities. There is also the setting up of the adoption and permanence task force, especially its remit to Xscrutinise the backlog"--a phrase used in the PIU report. But what powers will that task force have? Will it simply have the right to make reports and review progress? In particular, what relationship will it have with the Lord Chancellor's Department and the court services area?

Will the task force have the right to review the availability of legal aid and the speed of court processes? Will it be able to sort out the Xlack of grip" referred to so often in adoption and care processes? I understand that it will exercise its responsibility together with the Social Services Inspectorate and the national care standards commission, but the key objectives regarding responsibility for enforcing national standards and ensuring that local authorities are put to the task must be clearly identified.

We very much welcome the setting of national standards, but some clarity about whether that also applies to the court services and to the Legal Services Commission would be helpful. I should like to know how that will relate to the earlier circular of 1998. We strongly welcome the proposed review by the independent body where adoption is refused, and the setting up of a national adoption register. We especially welcome the new duty to be imposed on local authorities to plan and provide, subject to assessment, support services post-adoption. The Government have mentioned a significant figure of #66 million in that context. Can the Minister say whether that will be ring-fenced? Further, will the new adoption allowances be included within that figure or be excluded from it?

There are other key areas that I have no doubt will be covered in the proposed legislation, or in further measures to be introduced in due course. I refer particularly to the changes to maternity and paternity leave provision, which are much more generous to adopters. We welcome the consultation that is taking place and hope that that will reach an early conclusion. Mention was made in previous consultations about the need to ensure that freeing orders are not made, and that the child's relationship with both parents is not broken until adoption takes place. I wonder whether the Minister has anything to say on that subject.

The access to records is mentioned in passing in the White Paper. Again, it consists of a pure outline; there are no details as to the contents. We look forward therefore to the way that that will be settled in due course because that is clearly a very sensitive area. The area of websites and how they are used in this context are also most important. I have seen no reference in the White Paper to the latter. I assume that that will also be the subject of legislation at some stage.

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Generally, we very much welcome the contents of this White Paper. I am sure that the legislation will not be easy to draft in some of the areas. However, I can assure the Minister that such legislation will get a very fair wind from these Benches.

12.4 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for the warm welcome that they have given to the principles contained in the White Paper. I am sure that we shall be able to take forward the general consensus that this is the right way to proceed when legislation is introduced. I cannot give a firm date in that respect, but earlier in the year the Prime Minister said that legislation would be introduced next year. Therefore, we can hope to make speedy progress on the matter.

I very much share the key point made by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, about the importance of ensuring that adoption, fostering and the care system work well together. That is necessary if we are really to provide the high quality support and services that are required for this huge number of children--58,000, as the noble Earl said--who are being looked after at present.

The various actions that the Government have taken--the Quality Protects programme; the enhanced monitoring of local authorities; the establishment of the general social care council; and the introduction of the Children (Leaving Care) Act--will, together, provide a much more robust package that will enable us to deal with the problems that many noble Lords have graphically illustrated over the years. Ultimately, much of this comes down to local authority performance. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, referred to variations in performance, especially in relation to the percentage of children looked after who had subsequently been adopted. I, too, have a similar range of figures: 0.5 per cent of looked-after children in Merton in 1998-99, compared to 10.5 per cent in Calderdale.

Although huge variations in performance between different local authorities cause concern, they also show that we can turn the problem around. As ever, the task is to pull up the performance of the less good to a point that is nearer the level of those which perform best. I believe that the various mechanisms that we have put in place will enable us to do so; for example, the adoption and permanence task force will play a very important role in that respect both in spreading best practice and in working with poorly-performing councils.

I take the point that the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, raised about the task force's remit in relation to the courts. There are two points that I can make in response. First, we are working very closely with the Lord Chancellor's Department in its review of issues relating to childcare in the courts. We aim to achieve a consistency of approach. Secondly, in monitoring the performance of local authorities, I am sure that the task force will undoubtedly wish to talk to those involved in the court administration in a particular

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area to ensure that there is a consistency of approach across the boundaries. That is most important and has been one of the problems in terms of the huge delay experienced in completing an adoption process.

As the Statement makes clear, we have, in addition to the task force, set robust targets for local authorities. Our performance assessment approach in terms of measuring the progress that it makes, our ability to intervene in a number of ways, special measures with very close monitoring by the Social Services Inspectorate, and the ability for the Secretary of State ultimately to take intervention powers, will, I believe, give us the tools with which to ensure that local authorities do perform much better than they have in the past.

The issue of political correctness has raised its head. All of us have been concerned about the reported decisions of some local authorities in relation to adoption. The Statement makes clear the principles under which we expect local authorities to perform. It is just worth mentioning that the full facts regarding certain cases that have featured in media reports have not always been revealed because, clearly, the issue of confidentiality must be considered. When social services departments are subject to enormous criticism, there is sometimes very little that they can say about the aspects of a specific case.

Having said that, it does not take away my concern about the performance of many local authorities and the need to move away from so-called ideological considerations to a more balanced approach. I also believe that the poor adoption rates in some local authorities have little to do with political correctness or ideology but are due to a lack of priority, grip and attention. We have the ability now to ensure that local authorities give sufficient attention to the matter.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, asked about workforce training. I agree that it is crucial. All work undertaken with children as part of the adoption process and the assessment and preparation of adoptive families must be carried out by qualified social workers. The only tasks related to adoption which do not need to be undertaken by qualified social workers are administrative. We have a recruitment and retention problem with social workers. We also need to address the worrying trend in the reduction in applications for training as social workers. The work we are doing with the ADSS, the local government association, will help in this area. We have also to consider how we can improve the status of social workers. The bashings that they receive--sometimes justified, more often not--do not encourage people into social work. Yet society relies on these people to carry an enormous workload and pressure. The answer is undoubtedly to see what we can do to boost their image. I am a great believer in the general social care council. Setting up a professional statutory regulatory body is one way in which we can enhance the quality.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, asked me about special guardianship. Essentially, this is for the use of the court if it decides in the child's interest--to meet the needs of children for whom adoption is not

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appropriate. It might include older children who do not wish to be separated legally from their birth parents even though they cannot live with them but would like a more formal relationship with their foster parents. That is likely to be in relation to older children.

Post-adoption support is very important. Parents who adopt children often complain that once they adopt the child the local authority loses interest in them. We know that it is a challenging process, often with children who have been very disturbed. So one of the most important parts of the White Paper is the provision of assessment to see what support the adoptive parents require. It will also involve the ability to provide financial support. This is very important. Some foster parents who would have wished to adopt children have incurred a real financial disadvantage because some local authorities phase out rapidly the financial payments they receive as foster parents. This proposal will enable us to get over that problem.

Finally, the #66.5 million funding for adoption will be ring-fenced.

12.13 p.m.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Statement and share his objective of stability. I seek amplification on a couple of points. First, will the rights of the adopted child to know the circumstances and identity of his or her natural parent be affected by these proposals? Is it proposed to make any changes?

Secondly, can he say a little more about the other side of the equation: the protection provided for an adopted child and the adoptive parents from capricious and often unpredictable behaviour in subsequent years by the natural parents? I am sure that the Minister will be aware of cases where secure relationships have been disrupted quite unjustifiably, without there being apparently any proper legal protection for the child or his adoptive parents. If we cannot get the balance right in those two areas, we are unlikely to be able to achieve the stability that he and, I am sure, all noble Lords seek.

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