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Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme): As joint chair of the all-party Back-Bench group on adoption, I welcome this enormous step forward for children. I thank everyone at the Department for the hard work that has been done to produce such a good package. There are very few questions to ask--perhaps only how the commissioner for care will link into it. For those most deprived children, Father Christmas has come early.
Mr. Milburn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I pay tribute to the work that she and the all-party group have done. It is always useful for Ministers to have a bit of pressure--not too much. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister of State has been feeling the heat, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) feels that the pressure that she and others have been applying has achieved the right response.
The role of the commissioner or director will be extremely important in the future, and will involve taking a broad view of how well children's services are being delivered. That is right. We are setting in place various mechanisms to make sure that we get the right balance between speeding up the adoption process and ensuring
Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not become too bored by the fact that most of us welcome the White Paper. The only regret is that it is long overdue and no place was found for it in the Queen's Speech.
I particularly welcome the setting of national standards, which will end the heart-breaking experience of many prospective adoptive parents when they try to find a council whose criteria they fit. I also welcome the right of appeal to an independent body; the £66 million that local authorities will be given to invest in improving adoption services; and the recognition of the importance of after-care and support following adoption. However, I can find no mention of on-going funding for that process.
Social services around the country are hard-pressed for cash, so will there be an input of money from the Government to fund this worthwhile scheme? We need to make sure that adoptions last. Many of the children come from damaged backgrounds. Three years is a long time for a child to be in care before being adopted, and we must do everything possible to minimise the long-term effects of that. Can the Secretary of State confirm that funding to local authorities will be on-going throughout that process?
I have a couple more quick questions. What will the special guardianship order mean in practice? Finally, the PIU report in July showed that there was scope for a much higher proportion of looked-after children to be adopted. There was no mention of any measures proposed to attract a wider pool of potential adoptive parents. Will the Secretary of State elaborate on that?
Mr. Milburn: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her welcome for the proposals. The special guardianship order will be particularly important for older children who want to maintain contact with their birth families--who do not want to sever their ties with them, but want more than all the benefits that long-term fostering can offer. That order will end councils' legal responsibility for looking after the children. That will become the responsibility of the family with the special guardianship order, which will be particularly attractive to the children themselves.
Incidentally, it is worth saying that in the course of preparing the White Paper, we consulted various agencies and so on, but we also took the trouble to consult some children in care, as well as children in the adoption system and some who have been adopted. I hope that their views have informed the final product.
On-going support is important. We know that about 18 per cent. of adoption placements--one in five--break down. It is therefore very important that, as we increase the number of adoptions, we increase the support that families get. Adopting a child is not an easy process for the child or the family, and we should not assume that it
As part of the on-going support, we have given local authorities three years of funding. This is the first time that they have ever had that, and the funding is part of the quality protects money. I know that we shall never satisfy Liberal Democrat Members on that point. Every time that we put money in, they always want more, but they never say where that should come from. The problem is that, in the end, I am afraid, one must take decisions about where the money is coming from. Two things are involved: the money to be spent and the money that one gets. One has to balance them both.
Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. I am quite emotional about it because I have the privilege of being an adoptive parent. My right hon. Friend could not exaggerate the hideousness of the procedure that so many people go through, and could not exaggerate the awful trauma that so many children experience. I stand here as a privileged mum of a 20-year old who has been, and will remain, my two eyes. I am therefore grateful for the statement.
When my right hon. Friend mentioned the independent appeals procedure, I, for one, said, "Yes!" I was 32, had gone through awful episodes--as one could well imagine--and was told by social services that I was too old to adopt. That broke my heart, and my husband's heart. The fact that we were Christians and attended church gave us the opportunity to adopt Philippa. However, that should never ever be the case. I cannot say that I am a brilliant parent, but I think that I am two thirds a good parent. I would not like to exaggerate, but many people want to take part in bringing up children, and the proposal will give them the opportunity to do that, as the appeals procedure is vital.
Perhaps this is a personal beef, but was no consideration given to having a national bureau for adoption? I know that we have national standards, and I like that. However, having been the victim of a local authority decision and having had no recourse, may I ask whether any consideration was given to establishing a national body? Lastly, may I ask the Secretary of State, as a good friend of mine, what support will be given to the birth mother who, in making her decision, goes through an awfully traumatic time, both before and after adoption? Support is therefore crucial. As a mum--a privileged, adoptive mum--and on behalf of my partner, may I thank my right hon. Friend for the statement?
Mr. Milburn: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for what she said and all that she has done. She is right that the current processes are horrendous. One would think that there were too many potential adoptive parents in this country and too few children in care. However, the position is quite the reverse. The way in which the system has operated has deterred adoptive parents and prevented children in care from getting the support and the loving permanent family that they need. The White Paper is important--as will be the legislation--as it will turn that situation around.
My hon. Friend raised two specific matters. On the creation of a bureau, we looked carefully at that in the course of our consultation, especially after the PIU report was published in July, but there were mixed views on it. The primary thing to keep in mind is the importance of maintaining the strong linkage between local adoption services and local child protection services. That is why, in the end, we chose the model that we did. It will keep adoption services local, but at the same time, ensure that there is a national adoption register, which will provide a bigger pool of prospective parents and children and, we hope, get the match right.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about birth parents. Anybody who thinks that giving up a child is easy has got it wrong. The White Paper advocates some simple things that we can do in respect of birth parents. For example, we can change the form that birth families have to sign when they give up their child. It currently states that they give up their child freely and without regret, but such wording is not appropriate. In future, the form will make it clear that parents are signing because they believe that the adoption is in the child's best interests. I hope that that will be a small step towards making the process slightly easier.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): As co-chairman with the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) of the all-party group on adoption, I strongly welcome the statement and congratulate the Secretary of State and the Minister of State on a series of measures that will make a material difference to some desperately disadvantaged children whom Parliament has failed for far too long. I especially welcome the moves on post-adoption alliances, as well as the introduction of the national register and the fact that it is being put out to independent tender. I welcome also the right of appeal to the Secretary of State for parents who have been turned down and the time framework that is to be imposed on local authorities.
I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that, in delivering all those measures, the voluntary organisations and local authorities will be fishing in the same limited pool of social workers. His parallel consideration of social work training and of the culture of the social services departments--an issue to which my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) referred--will be critical.
I leave the right hon. Gentleman with one more thought. Although I strongly endorse his remarks about changing the wording of the forms for birth parents who are genuinely agonising about what is best for their children, I ask him not always to be sympathetic to birth parents. He must bear in mind birth parents such as those of a little chap who was adopted recently in my constituency. They had kept him locked in a cellar for so many years that he could not speak. Another child was left outside for so long that doctors had to consider amputating his feet because of gangrene. There are some good birth parents, but also some bad ones; the balance is difficult to strike.