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The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's arguments. Does he believe that local authorities should give up their role as local adoption agencies, and, if so, should that role be taken centrally?
Mr. Brazier: I stand by the position that I have always taken: we should allow local authorities to maintain their current role when they are doing a decent job, but the process of stripping that role from authorities that consistently fail should be greatly accelerated. It should be given either to a neighbouring local authority that is doing a better job or a voluntary agency--[Interruption.] I am sorry, I am not sure whether the Parliamentary Secretary wants to hear my reply or not.
That is the short answer, but there is a further point. The regulation of adoption should be kept separate from the provider, which is why I envisage a central structure of regulation with a local structure of providers--but with the caveat that local authorities that are doing a bad job should have their responsibilities removed and given to neighbouring authorities or voluntary organisations. That has been the view of the all-party group since it was founded. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Newcastle- under-Lyme nodding.
Almost every Member who has spoken has agreed that the existing system is failing children miserably. We all want to speed up the procedure. That subsection could be used by vindictive birth parents again and again to hold up perfectly valid adoptions.
Mr. McLoughlin: My hon. Friend raises an important point. Does he believe that the provision could be used to stop children being placed with adoptive parents who have strong religious beliefs? If a child does not have
Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. There is genuine worry about that. I received a letter from a retired clergyman in which he described an experience from a long time ago--it must have been 20 years previously--when he had been refused, because the social services department thought it inappropriate to place a child with him as a strong practising Christian. Of course, I have only his word for that.
A further point about the wording of subsection (5) is that I do not know what "due consideration" means. Lawyers whom I have asked do not know, either. It would be unfortunate if lawyers could seize on such a vague phrase and read different meanings into it.
The second of the five points on my checklist relates to the need to protect damaged children, about which the Minister spoke at length. We are all present because we are concerned about children in care, almost all of whom, apart from babies, are there, sadly, because they have been damaged by abuse or long-term neglect. The hon. Member for Erewash made a powerful point in that regard. She said that if we are short of adopters, as we have long been, it is no good saying that we are considering the best interests of the child. If the best interests of the child are to find parents, we must also consider the interests of the parents. I shall reinforce that point with a further example.
There has been a trend in the courts towards open adoption, whereby the birth family is allowed to know the name and address of the adopters. That is deeply unwelcome to potential adoptive parents. Who could blame them? If the child whom they are taking on has been damaged by the former family, do the adoptive parents really want the family to know where they live?
I have constituents who took on two little boys and who are seeing that adoption through. They have had the children for several years. One of the children was kept locked in a cellar for so long that he had not developed the power of speech when he was adopted, aged seven or eight. The other child was left out in the cold for so long that the amputation of his feet had to be considered. Eventually, the gangrene was cured and he was saved. Once again, I find myself totally out of sympathy with those who appeal for the interests of birth families. Neither of those cases was an open adoption.
My reservations do not apply just to the more extreme cases. To see what a destroyer open adoption is, we need look no further than experience in Australia and New Zealand. Australia has much to teach us in many other areas of family policy, but in respect of open adoption, its views are seriously wrong. Adoption has virtually collapsed there since the courts started to make almost every adoption an open adoption. The numbers are down to pitifully low levels--300 last year, from memory.
Unfortunately, the Bill does not address the issue. It is a long Bill, and I apologise if I am wrong, but I have found in it nothing to say that the courts should be wary of breaching secrecy. I welcome the sensible though rather complicated measures in clause 15 onwards, which provide for matters to be speeded up through the courts by advance placements of children while they are awaiting outcomes, and the change in the freeing order system.
I come to the third point on my checklist. The Minister said, rightly, that the national register would be compulsory. Clause 9 introduces the independent review, for which we on the all-party group have argued repeatedly. We feel strongly that it is essential, but it has been left entirely to regulation. I shall discuss two aspects that are fundamental to the regulation.
The Minister made it clear that independent review would be open, in principle, to people who have been refused a place on the national register--the clause uses the words "a qualifying determination". I shall consider the case of people refused individual matching. There clearly cannot be an appeal in every case where a matching is refused, as that would place an intolerable strain on social services and inspectors' time, which is already heavily overstretched. However, if no appeals are allowed on individual matching, couples who get on to the national register will have no better chance of getting any further if there are silly objections to them.
I suggest that there are two cases in which an appeal should be allowed. The first is where a foster parent wants to adopt the children. One of the saddest conclusions that emerged two years ago from the marvellous study by Murch and Lowe at Cardiff university was that, unbelievably, some miserable local authorities had incredibly low adoption rates. There are a number of good local authorities, but some of the miserable ones, as a written policy, never allow foster parents to adopt children in their care. Strong messages have gone out about that. Where the child has been successfully placed with foster parents, whatever the local authority is planning, the foster parents should automatically be entitled to appeal if they are not allowed to adopt the children.
The second case is where a couple on the national register are refused an appeal, and the child is not placed with anyone else within a sensible time frame. That, too, should trigger an appeal. It could be a two-part appeal--a quick paperwork sort, to check that there is no obvious factor preventing the adoption, before a full appeal is undertaken.
My fourth point also involves appeals. The child has no appeal anywhere in the system. I do not mean to embarrass the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme by continually referring to her, but she has repeatedly argued eloquently for a children's commissioner. I would go halfway. There is an overwhelming case for a commissioner purely for children in care. That post would be a way station for appeals to the Minister from children.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden mentioned lay visitors. One of the best measures in the Children Act 1989 was the requirement on local authorities to ensure that children who have no visitors are appointed a lay visitor. The case for that is overwhelming. I heard a brave presentation by a lady social worker last year who had been a whistleblower in a particularly horrible scandal. That ruined her professional career; she is now out of social work. The great thing about lay visitors is that they have no career at stake or concern except for the interests of the children.
The saddest failure of the Children Act is that the vast majority of local authorities have not bothered to implement that requirement. I would like something to be done, either in the Bill or through administrative measures already in the law, to make councils appoint lay visitors. That would tie in with the idea of giving children a route of appeal. A lay visitor could tell a child that he or she could write to the children's commissioner, who could then decide whether it would be worth passing the case to the ministerial appeals panel.
My fifth and final point is on the linked subjects of statistics and structure of finance. I shall not detain the House by repeating the cogent appeal made by my right hon. Friend--a man who, as he said himself, seldom asks for such pump priming. A generous sum up front would produce huge savings down the line. What has happened in America genuinely proves that. I shall focus instead on the structure of finance.
It is easy on Second Reading to get lost in the wind, bang on and lose the attention of the House, but one fundamental point must be considered: children are disappearing in care. Surely people remember that some of those murdered by the West couple were children in care. I heard a Labour Member, whom I will not name because I am not sure whether he has made such an appeal publicly, state eloquently in private that he believes that children have disappeared in care in his constituency. They had been sent there by outside social services without local social services knowing.
I firmly believe that central Government should hold an internal register of children in care. It should be the statutory duty of every local authority to inform the Government of any child held in care for more than a very short period of, say, one or two months, so that children cannot disappear from the system. That should be central to the great scope for collecting statistics under the latter part of the Bill, which will inevitably depend on regulations. I make a financial proposal to hang on that.
There is so much in the Bill to pull together practice--to try to raise the performance of the vast number of badly performing local authorities to that of the small number that are performing very well, which are dotted around the country and are of different political affiliations. One of the best contributions that the Government could make under the Bill and as a follow-up to it would be to move the financial packages from social services departments--leaving them still to administer them--and to attach them to children. Thereby, local authorities, or foster parents where they apply, would be directly reimbursed for the services that they provide for children, instead of having to operate under an all-embracing budget that covers everybody from the youngest to the oldest and does not earmark. That would provide an incentive for people to do things for children.
I raised a specific example in an intervention on the Minister. Nobody supports more strongly than I do the provisions on timing, particularly the provision that the ball starts to roll after six months. As far as I can see, as the Bill stands, the clock is reset each time. Therefore, a social services department--it may not be badly led but just desperately short of cash--faced with an evenly balanced decision whether to send a child back to the birth family after five and a half months might consider the financial consequences of keeping that child in care for another two or three weeks, compared with the huge financial saving from giving the birth family one more
I end where I began. This is a good Bill. I congratulate the Minister on the huge amount of work that he has put into it. In order to do the best that we can for the children concerned, as I know the whole House wants, the Bill needs to be strengthened. I have suggested five ways in which we could do so.