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Sandra Gidley (Romsey): My initial reaction was to extend a cautious welcome to the Bill. For all the reasons described by the Minister, it is much needed. As I have said before, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get things right, but the caution was because my first impression was that the Bill had all the hallmarks of a rushed job. Therefore, I welcome the acknowledgment that that is perhaps the case and that some aspects of it are not quite right. I support the decision to refer it to a special Select Committee.
I am beginning to suspect that the Government have a certain sentimentality. The long-awaited White Paper was launched a few days before Christmas and we are discussing the Bill as near as we can get to Mothering Sunday. I do not know whether that was deliberate, but it is nice timing.
The Bill was not in the Queen's Speech. Although there are many good things in the Bill, the overriding question is one of balance. No one would argue that the needs of the child are not paramount, but there are other people in the picture. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) described it as the eternal triangle. We must consider the natural parents. While we are talking about natural parents, the relatives who always seem to miss out somewhere in the process are the grandparents. They are often overlooked; their needs are not addressed in any way. It would have been nice to see something in the Bill to help with that point.
We must also think about the would-be adoptive parents. Is the balance exactly right? Those people have rights, too. We must consider carefully the right to family life under article 8 of the European convention on human rights. That aspect has been raised by some adoption charities.
It is imperative that we set down clear parameters and have a clear definition of what the criteria are before parents can lose their relationship with their child against their wishes. In such situations, not all parents wish entirely to lose their relationship with their children.
Parents come in many shapes and sizes, and some may not be very good at parenting. We should have a clear protocol so that all parties in the equation know what has to be done to try to resolve the situation. As the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) said, we have first and foremost to try to help parents to become good parents, and we should consider adoption only after every other possible action has been taken.
We also have to consider the position of adoptive parents. Delay after delay is an in-built characteristic of the current system, but nothing could be more agonising for adoptive parents and children. However, although I welcome action to speed up the process, we have to remember that 67 per cent. of children in care have mental health problems. I should therefore like there to be greater emphasis on properly assessing all children's needs. As the hon. Member for Wakefield said, the process should not be simply a matter of allowing six weeks to tick all the boxes. For the sake of the children, we have to get everything right.
We all know that many children in care have complex needs, which may require the input of a health authority or local education authority. Although the local authority is obliged to notify the health authority or local education authority of those needs, again the Bill seems to contain no provision to assign a duty of care to the local authority, to ensure that children receive the best possible services. I have been greatly concerned about that issue since I first read the Bill, and, in subsequent conversations, charities and other organisations involved in adoption work have told me that they share that concern. We desperately need some joined-up thinking on the issue. I hope that we shall be able to achieve that in Committee.
The issue of financial support is related to the other issues I have mentioned. The White Paper states that, over three years, a £66.5 million package will be provided. However, if we are to do the job properly, we have to be clear about how money for the children will be allocated not only over three years, but year after year. Will money follow the children, as it does for children with special educational needs, or will local authorities have discretion in deciding how it is allocated? Across the country, most social services departments are struggling to make ends meet. They need to know that there is a formula to ensure funding.
The White Paper also said that the Government would improve the system of adoption allowances. Again, however, the Bill does not clearly address that issue. It also does not clearly address the issue of providing the necessary financial support for special guardians. We seek clarification on that issue.
I think that all hon. Members accept that we have to widen the pool of prospective carers. As has been said, caring is not the province of the rich, and a carefully worked out financial package would be helpful in assuring people that they can afford to adopt. Moreover, in the long run, such a package would save money. It would also remove part of the financial barrier for those who wish to become adoptive parents.
The provisions in clause 9 on the appeals process are also causing concern for some people and some adoption agencies. The Bill lacks detail on the type of determination with which the provision is supposed to deal and on the type of action that would follow a review if the review panel and an agency reached different conclusions. We need clarification on that issue.
There also seems to be a requirement for agencies themselves to fund such reviews. That requirement, and the fear of financial penalties, could deter agencies--particularly small, voluntary agencies--from making decisions that best reflect the interests of the child. Additionally, agencies could be financially crippled by funding the costs of appeals. The Government may have already addressed that issue. However, if they have, the Bill does not make that clear.
Adoption agencies have also expressed concerns about clauses 15 to 26, on the extremely complex issue of placement orders. I am heartened, however, that we shall have a special Select Committee to consider the Bill, as that will allow us to consult on the provisions on placement orders and other issues. Further work will have to be done before the Bill is passed, and I urge the Government to accept that we have to get it right initially.
On balance, therefore, Liberal Democrats Members welcome the Bill. Although I have outlined some issues that particularly concern us, what we really want is a clear national strategy. Currently, strategies differ from one local authority to another. Prospective parents who have been rejected by one authority as being too old, at 30, have had to go in search of another authority that may have different adoption criteria. Illnesses, too, have been treated differently by different local authorities. I differ from the hon. Member for Wakefield on this issue. Although one needs good health to be a good mother, one does not need to have perfect health. Someone who is 25 and diabetic, for example, can be a good parent throughout his or her life.
Liberal Democrat Members believe that we need sensible national standards. However, we do not think that we should become preoccupied by targets. Although it is laudable to set as our goal the adoption of 40 to 50 per cent. of children in care, and we would support such a goal, adoptions have to be arranged properly. We have to minimise the number of adoptive placements that break down. It would be far better to miss that target and have 35 per cent. of children happily settled in a home than to hit the target with a higher breakdown rate. We would also like there to be monitoring of adoption placements, to ensure that we are arranging them properly and not rushing ahead simply for the sake of hitting a target.
Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): It is a privilege to speak in this debate. The common feature in the Bill is the clear statement that children are the main priority and that their welfare is the paramount consideration in all adoption decisions. Absolutely appropriately, that statement is the Bill's theme. I am very pleased also that the procedures and structures established in the Bill encompass the need to engage with the public and to encourage public involvement. The Bill is creating an openness and putting it at the heart of the adoptive process. Those features are crucial to me, as someone who has had the privilege of being an adoptive parent.
I was very disappointed to hear the speech by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). I say that as someone who has spent a year as a member of an all-party group that has worked on achieving a Bill that sets right the whole adoption process. In that year, there has been both consensus and a serious partnership in order to achieve this Bill. When the White Paper was published, pleasure and congratulations permeated the entire House. No one should want to kick that into touch, as I think the hon. Lady was seriously attempting to do. She will not succeed.
Everyone in the House knows that far too many children are in care. There could be 58,000 children in the care of local councils at any one time. I am not complaining about the councils or about social workers. Before I went to university, I was a house mother in a
There is no room for a political football. There is definite concern that consensus about the principled way in which we pursue this issue should always be to the fore. We know that many of the children who come out of council care develop mental health problems or have few formal qualifications, and many enter relationships with adoptive parents that break down. We know what an institutional life can do. We see it too readily, and it shames us all. That is why we should not gibe at each other, but work together.
I was seriously pleased with much of the Bill, but I want to question one or two aspects. It introduces the independent review mechanism for prospective adopters who believe that they have been unfairly turned down. I have serious personal experiences--the House was most tolerant and supportive of me when I spoke of them on publication of the White Paper--that tell me that it is absolutely crucial to have an independent review mechanism that encourages people to come on board and want to be adoptive parents, because they know that they will be treated fairly and understand what the process is all about.
That is very welcome, but I hope that the Minister will take it on board that I believe that the children require an equally independent review mechanism. It does not matter what we call it--a children's ombudsman or a commissioner--but we must give children the opportunity to express their concerns to someone who will listen. Far too many children are lost and buried in the process of trying to find them a place to live and people who will love them.
The Bill does not seem to achieve--I shall be delighted if the Minister tells me that I am wrong--a tracking system that will show us where the child has been at every stage, how the child has been treated and what the child has had to cope with. Such a system is absolutely crucial. It will help to reduce the problem of children feeling that they have been left in limbo. They want adoptive parents, and many prospective adopters want them, but somewhere along the line the link has not been made.
The Bill contains clear statements about post-adoption support. Again, that is crucial. When we adopted a beautiful baby of five weeks--I know that this is borne out by others who are privileged to be in the same position--no one came to see us, check that all was well, offer advice or help, or find out whether the beautiful, healthy child we adopted was still beautiful, healthy and full of beans. In fact, she was--and remains so.
It is ridiculous that I have had the privilege of looking after another woman's baby, but nobody came to check that I was doing it effectively and that the child was developing well. I did not need regular visits, but if there is a problem and people need help, it should be available immediately and without question. Of course, no one would willingly break down a loving, supportive relationship, but children of three, five, nine or 14 come out of institutions with serious problems, and parents need support in looking after them. Post-adoptive support is an excellent innovation.
I also ask the Minister to consider the work of both the new and the established voluntary adoption agencies. They comprise individuals who are often possessed of considerable experience and expertise. Their work load is significant: they are asked to do an awful lot, often including home checks for intercountry adoptions. If the 40 per cent. target is to be achieved, they will be an essential part of the process.
Many of us will have worked with the voluntary agencies--I certainly have--and one is quickly and forcefully struck by the fact that they regularly have to do serious fundraising. I ask the Minister to consider the fundraising gap and the qualities that they bring to the process, in an effort to find ways of supporting them.
I sound less positive than I am about the Bill. I am incredibly positive about it, but I would like to persuade the Government to include one or two other measures. There is no fast-track process for pre-school children. It is essential to consider such an approach. I need not labour the point that it is infinitely easier to develop binding, loving and permanent relationships with children who have not been in care or in the care system for an excessive period of time. A permanent relationship is easier to achieve by reducing the period in which a child is in care.
When I worked for Lancashire county council, I witnessed children under three who were stuck in the system It is totally unacceptable. They are loving, vulnerable little individuals who should be with families. They should not be in a dormitory along with 12 other children, however caring and loving the care home. It is very important that small children are placed in families as soon as possible.
I have a final request. Local authorities that do not at present give counselling to women with unwanted pregnancies should provide that service. Those women need someone to whom they can turn. They need someone to support them and help them decide what is best for them and their baby.
My support for the national register is without question. I believe strongly in the consultation on national standards. The introduction of an adoption taskforce for failing authorities is vital. Allowing courts to set a timetable to reduce delays in adoption cases is crucial.
Much of the Bill is valuable and should be prized by all of us. I have asked for other valuable measures to be included, such as an independent children's commissioner, resourcing for voluntary and adoption agencies and effective tracking. The Minister said that he has an open door and that he is listening. I believe that we can add to the Bill in the special Select Committee to make it first class. We must ensure that people realise that the Bill makes it clear that children must always be our first priority.