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Dr. Cable: I do not want to reopen the debate that we had last week. I happily supported the principle of giving unmarried couples the right to adopt. The Government seemed to sayI fully supported themthat it was often better for unmarried couples rather than married couples to adopt because that widened the pool of adoption and brought more people into play. I am simply asking them to follow through the same logic in relation to the very specific problem that we are considering.
Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield): I did not intend to speak in the debate on this amendment, but I am stimulated by contributions from the Conservative Front Bench and the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable).
I have grave doubts in principle about overseas adoptions. Last week, I mentioned the circumstances that I witnessed in Romania. I know nothing about Baroness Nicholson's report, which I have not read, but I share her concern about procedures for removing very poor children from Romania. I believe strongly that our contribution in such circumstances should be to try to work with the authorities and the children and their families to ensure that poverty and deprivation are addressed in their own country.
I mentioned my visit 10 years ago to a nursery in Romania containing 100 children below the age of five. I remember the children climbing all over me while I stood. On starting in child care work, I found that when somebody goes into a children's home, children who do not know them climb on to them for love and for the sake of touching somebody. My experience in Romania was the same. The nursery was supposedly an orphanage, but, as I said last week, when I asked the woman in charge how many of the children were without families, she told me that only one out of 100 was an orphan. The rest had families, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters who loved them dearly, but could not afford to bring them up.
I passionately believe that we need to tread carefully in relation to overseas adoptions. I would welcome an assurance from the Minister that we will consider how this country might assist in protecting youngsters in countries such as Romania who are removed from their families. It can happen for what might seem the very best of reasons. Indeed, I and one or two other members of the Select Committee on Health had contact with a previous scheme in which poor children were removed from this country to the other side of the world for the very best of reasons. When they came back, a number of them asked, "Why did you do it, Britain?"
Would we honestly argue that children in this country who are in poverty and are deprived and living in very difficult circumstances should be sent overseas and adopted there because we cannot look after them and support their families? I do not think so. I hope that we will tread very carefully in dealing with these matters.
Mention has been made of the Kilshaw case. I am not here to use parliamentary privilege in an unfair way either, but I point out that the case highlighted numerous problems that are addressed by the amendments, which are most welcome. Many criticisms are made of social services. It is obvious that they are under a great deal of pressure, but the Flintshire social services moved rapidly indeed in that case and deserve credit for what they did. Equally, the Government have listened to the evidence taken in the Special Standing Committee. The amendments are welcome and the Bill is far better now than a few months ago.
The hon. Members for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) and for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) referred to youngsters in Romania. I visited Belarus not so long ago and saw similar circumstances in which children were seemingly being offered to all and sundry, which is completely unacceptable. The comments made by the hon. Member for Wakefield were absolutely right: we need better liaison between UK authorities and those in other countries.
Jacqui Smith: We have had a short but useful debate, in which different views have been expressed on whether the Government should further restrict inter-country adoption or take an even more positive approach to it. This partly represents the sensitivity and the concerns of people engaged in such adoption; it also reflects a failure to understand some of the progress that is being made in the Bill.
To return to the point pressed by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) about the use of the word "natural", I am not sure that I am going to be able to satisfy him today, so to speak. The Government considered other terms, but they were all seen to have problems attached to their use, some of which have been mentioned today. Perhaps I could write to him about why "natural" is the most appropriate term.
Several hon. Members have understandably mentioned the Kilshaw case in relation to safeguards. I note the presence in the Chamber of my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson); he was, of course, the Kilshaws' constituency MP. I understand that he supports the views of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) about the important contribution made by Flintshire social services, and about the importance of ensuringas we are doing in the Billthat significant changes are made to protect children from the kind of events that we saw in the Kilshaw case. This will be assisted by the Government's decision to restrict the bringing into the country of children adopted in other countries within the last six months. As I suggested in my introduction, that is quite an important loophole that the Bill will enable us to close.
Several hon. Members have mentioned the need for more support for those engaged in inter-country adoption. The hon. Member for Canterbury talked about the need for inter-country adoption agencies. I believe that some agencies already concentrate on inter-country work, and it is also possible for inter-country adoption agencies to be set up under the Bill. I would say to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) that it is not the intention of the Bill either artificially to increase or artificially to hold back the number of inter-country adoptions. It is not clear whether the number will increase, although it has risen steadily over the last couple of years. The Bill will, however, improve the quality of procedures for those wanting to adopt from overseas. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Twickenham that there is hostility in the system to inter-country adoption. I shall outline some of the action already taken by the Government.
We have introduced the provisions in the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 that place a clear duty on local authorities to establish an inter-country adoption service. Those adopting from abroad are already eligible under provisions relating to adoption support, which we have debated at some length. However, procedures are necessarily tight in order to protect and safeguard children. Given the concerns that hon. Members have expressed and what we know about some cases, it is important that those safeguards are in place.
We have fewer inter-country adoptions than some other countries, but we have 10 times the number of domestic adoptions than in Norway, for example. There is an important cultural issue to be considered. In many countries, there is nothing like the emphasisif any emphasis at allon the adoption of children out of care that there is in this country. Hon. Members will recognise that it is a very important priority for the Government not only to maintain but to increase the ability to adopt out of care. That is quite often the reason for discrepancies in adoption figures among countries. In addition, The Hague convention, against which I have not heard any hon. Member argue, requires that we tighten controls in order to proceed with our ratification.
Prospective adopters have the support both of their agencies and of the Department of Health's adoption unit in finding out the information that they need to help them adopt children from overseas. I do not quite understand the accusation made by the hon. Member for Twickenham that, somehow, Government officials are attempting to make life more difficult for those who want to adopt from overseas. I have evidence of people thanking officials in my Department for the assistance that they have been given on inter-country adoption.
The hon. Member for Canterbury suggested that the provisions in the Bill were weaker than the 1999 measures. In fact, clauses 81 and 84 are tighter in the sense that the Secretary of State will have to prescribe the requirements that ought to be met by local authorities in discharging their responsibilities to those adopting from overseas. Without that provision, the Secretary of State would not have any criteria to work to and would therefore be more likely to be challenged.
We recognise that a balance needs to be struck between enabling parents who have a genuine wish to adopt and a contribution to make in adopting a child from overseas, and the very important need to ensure that our legislation protects children not only in this country but overseas. As we have made clear throughout proceedings on this Bill, whether we are considering domestic or inter-country adoption, we must ensure that the needs of the children are at the centre of policies. I commend the Government's amendments to the House.
It being forty-five minutes after the commencement of proceedings on consideration of the Bill, Mr. Speaker, pursuant to Order [16 May], put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of business to be concluded at that hour.