HC Deb 09 November 1973 vol 863 cc1335-424

11.4 a.m.

The Secretary of State for Social Services (Sir Keith Joseph)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of the Report of the Departmental Committee on the Adoption of Children (Command No. 5107). The report appeared in October 1972. Now, just over a year later, the House has this welcome chance to debate it. During the intervening year most of the main organisations concerned with adoption have commented on the report and, incidentally, responsibility for the subject of adoption has been transferred from the Home Office to the Department of Health and Social Security. I myself and my advisers have been responsible for it since Easter this year.

The report is important. It deals with the welfare of children, particularly those who, for one reason or another, cannot be brought up by their own parents in their own homes. The report is complex and comprehensive, with interlocking recommendations over a wide range of subjects. Many of its proposals have aroused little or no controversy, but others, such as those dealing with the rights of natural parents, are controversial and have stirred deep feelings. The report contains 92 recommendations. I shall be able to speak about only a few of them, but I shall seek to highlight the issues on which it would be most valuable to have the views of hon. Members.

As the House will have realised from the absence of any reference to adoption in the Gracious Speech, we shall not be able to introduce legislation on the subject this Session. I do not want to anticipate the tone of today's debate, but I think that I can assume that few hon. Members will question the need for legislation. I regret that I can give no under- taking about the time. All I can say is that we shall push on as fast as possible with the necessary preliminaries. We shall continue the detailed consideration of the committee's recommendations in the light of comments made to us, including comments made by hon. Members today, and we shall set in hand the necessary consultations with the various interests involved, such as local government associations.

Before turning to the contents of the report, I should like to express the warm thanks of the Government to Judge Stockdale, who so skilfully took over the chair after Sir William Houghton's sudden death in November 1971. Judge Stockdale's task was doubly difficult. He not only had to maintain the standard set by his able and conscientious predecessor but he also had to take over at that most critical stage, when the members of the committee had heard what everyone else thought and had to start reaching decisions which fitted the facts and to provide acceptable and realistic solutions to the problems that they had been set to solve. On behalf of the Government I congratulate Judge Stockdale and the committee on the vigour and thoroughness with which they accepted this challenge and on providing the House and the country with a unanimous report.

I should like particularly to express gratitude to the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devon-port (Dame Joan Vickers)—who unfortunately is unable to be present today because she is in China—for their willingness to add service on this arduous and exacting committee to their already heavy public work. I am sure that the whole House will be grateful to Judge Stockdale and to all the members of the committee.

The committee was appointed in July 1969 to consider the law, policy and procedure on the adoption of children and what changes were desirable. It was asked to take a broad view of its terms of reference and to consider such issues as whether relatives should be able to apply for guardianship instead of adoption and, in particular, the position of long-term foster parents who wish to keep a child permanently, whether by adoption or otherwise, against the will of the natural parent. The committee, recognising the intricate and delicate nature of its task, very sensibly canvassed views widely by circulating a working paper containing its provisional proposals, and it commissioned a number of very relevant special surveys and research projects. The committee's final recommendations, therefore, take account of a wide spectrum of views as well as specially accumulated facts.

The report shows concern for all the people involved in adoption and fostering—the natural parents, adoptive parents, childless couples and foster parents—but it unequivocally puts the welfare of the children first. The committee recognises the complexity of the human emotions involved. It recognises the need to provide safeguards to ensure that the severance of what seems to many the most natural of all links—namely, the bond between parents and their children—is not lightly undertaken.

In the 10 years from 1958 to 1968 the number of adoption orders registered in Great Britain rose from about 15,000 a year to nearly 27,000. It now appears to have settled at around 24,000. Whereas at the beginning of that period three-quarters of the children were being adopted by strangers, the number of adoption orders now is fairly equally divided between adoption by strangers and adoption by parents and step-parents jointly. A higher percentage of the children being adopted by parents are legitimate children of the former marriage, thus reflecting the growing number of divorces and remarriages.

The report puts the interests of children first. It might be for the convenience of the House if, instead of following the sequence of the committee's arguments, I describe its main recommendations and classify them by relation to the situation of the children whom they concern.

One of the two main categories are those children who are offered for adoption by their own mothers. In that group the largest sub-group are children offered by their mothers for adoption through adoption agencies—namely, voluntary adoption societies or local authorities. One of the effects of the sharp fall in the number of children adopted by strangers is that many adoption soceties have had to close their waiting lists and to turn would-be adoptive parents away. One of the more welcome repercussions of the same factor is that children who were previously regarded as hard to place for adoption—for example, coloured children, older children and handicapped children—are now being found adoptive homes.

The reduction of demand has intensified the present uneven provision of adoption services throughout the country. That is a matter to which the committee drew attention. It emphasised the importance of a good adoption service being available in all areas, with skilled and qualified staff for the important work involved.

A good adoption service must include skilled assessment of the needs of the child, the capacity to ensure that a good home is found to meet those needs and the provision to give continuing help where required. As the committee emphasised, no universal coverage exists. Local authorities have the power but not the duty to provide an adoption service. Just over half of them do so. The gaps are not always filled by the 64 voluntary adoption societies.

Availability apart, many adoption societies have not the resources to ensure that a good pattern of services is provided to the three sets of people involved, the natural parents, the adoptive parents and the children.

The House will be quick to recognise that it was the voluntary society movement which pioneered adoption in Britain. The best of them still set standards for their counterparts in local authority social services departments. However, some societies suffer from serious limitations which reduce their ability to provide a truly child-centred service. They may lack access to assessment facilities or even homes and nurseries for children awaiting placement. Nevertheless, they were responsible for arranging a quarter of the adoptions made in 1971. Local authorities arranged another fifth.

If we take local authorities and voluntary adoption societies together, the picture of the adoption service is one of piecemeal provision and uneven standards. In some areas there is virtually no service at all. There has been no systematic attempt throughout the country to assess the needs or the resources area by area. There has been no attempt to integrate adoption work with other social work among children and families.

I am dwelling on that aspect of the problem and of the report because the provision of an adequate adoption service is, to my mind, the keynote of the committee's recommendations. Without such provision many of the committee's proposals would not be practicable.

To provide an adequate framework, the committee recognises that local authorities should have a statutory duty to provide an adoption service as part of a comprehensive social work service for children and families. It recognises that that should be done in co-operation with any voluntary societies in the local authority areas. To improve the standard of work of adoption societies, the committee recommended that wider criteria be laid down for their registration and monitoring. At present, it is the local authorities which are responsible for registering bodies who wish to arrange adoptions. Despite the standards laid down in the Adoption Act 1958, it is generally agreed for various reasons that registration by local authorities has been largely ineffective.

The committee recommended, because of the greater responsibilities which will be laid on adoption societies by its other proposals, that responsibility for registration should be taken over by central Government. The arguments for and against registration by local authorities are finely balanced. Local authorities are now being reorganised into larger units which will be capable of deploying a wide range of skills and facilities. Moreover, it surely is crucial that local authorities should be encouraged to assess the need for adoption in their areas and to co-operate with voluntary societies to meet that need.

My provisional view, in the light of all those factors and of the trend to devolve further tasks on local government, is that I should have some hesitation in accepting a recommendation in the opposite direction. While recognising the desirability of a national high-standard adoption service based on cooperation between local authorities and registered voluntary bodies. I am tentatively disagreeing with the recommendation of the committee that the registration of voluntary bodies should be a central Government task. That is very much an issue on which Ministers look forward to hearing the views of hon. Members.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (The Hartlepools)

. The right hon. Gentleman has dealt with a crucial matter. Does he base his reasons purely on the balanced consideration of information coming to him from local authorities or are they based on an assessment within his Department? Why does he take that line about central registration?

Sir K. Joseph

I well understand that leaving the registration to the local authorities, who often have standards no better than or not as good as some voluntary bodies, can create tensions between people who should be in partnership. However, we are looking to a time, which is not too far ahead, when local authorities will have been reorganised into large units, when they will have had imposed upon them by the legislation which I hope will follow from the report much sharper citeria and a firm duty to provide adoption services as part of a comprehensive child care service. They should be in a position to identify the need for adoption services in their area, to recognise the standards required by the criteria which will be laid down, and to carry out both the cooperation and registration happily with voluntary bodies. It is on that issue that I look forward to hearing the views of hon. Members.

I now turn to the adoption procedure. The consent of the parents is required, except in a limited range of circumstances, if adoption is to take place. As the law now stands, natural parents hold legal responsibility for their children until the moment an adoption order is made in favour of specific adopting parents. It may take a long time for suitable adopting parents to be identified and then the required trial period of three months must successfully occur before adoption can be sought. We are dealing with two essential but differently paced processes which are by present arrangements tied to each other.

The consent procedure is therefore a long-drawn-out procedure to coincide with the adoption process itself. The result can be harrowing for natural parents, for natural mothers in particular, and anxious for adopting parents who, until an adoption order is made, live under the constant fear that the mother will change her mind at the last moment and reclaim her child. In such circumstances it is hard for the adopters to commit themselves wholeheartedly to the child—and the child is the one who suffers most

The committee's proposals would make it possible, if the mother wished, for these two processes to be separated. A mother would be enabled to relinquish her parental rights, provided that her baby was at least six weeks old, to an adoption agency—that is, a local authority or a registered adoption society—which would then hold parental rights until the baby was adopted.

The advantages would be, first, that a mother could give her final consent shortly after six weeks instead of after a minimum of 4½ months as at present, and possibly frequently a much longer period; and, secondly, that the would-be adopters who already feel "on probation" would be able to concentrate on their care of the child during this period knowing at least that the mother would not change her mind.

The essential safeguard which the committee recommends should be built into the relinquishment procedure is that it must be approved by a court, which would be advised by a specially designated social worker to ensure that the mother had had proper help and advice, had consented freely, and fully understood what she was doing. Also, the procedure could not be introduced until the new registration system for adoption societies was fully working.

I come now to a proposed change that could affect any adoption situation. As the House knows—I have already referred to it—adoption is possible normally only with parental consent. The grounds on which a court may dispense with parental consent, however, exist and are carefully prescribed by law, but in none of the grounds is there any reference whatsoever to the welfare of the child. Although case law has established that in disputed cases where the court is considering whether consent has been withheld unreasonably the court should give consideration to the effect of the decision on the long-term welfare of the child, there is general concern that this principle is not expressly set out in statute.

The committee thought that the law should not be weighted too heavily against natural parents and therefore rejected the application in adoption cases of the paramountcy principle, which applies the welfare of the child as the paramount consideration in cases of guardianship and custody. They rejected this in favour of a compromise which seems to have found favour generally—that the statute law should provide that in deciding whether a parent is withholding consent unreasonably the court shall have regard to all the circumstances, first consideration being given to the effect of the court's decision on the long-term welfare of the child.

I turn now from the first big group of children offered by their mothers for adoption through adoption societies or local authorities to the second group, namely, children offered by their mother for adoption through a third party or directly—that is, through such people as doctors, solicitors, matrons of homes, or even casual acquaintances. I emphasise to the House that though this is an important group it is a comparative minority and only a very small minority of that comparative minority has given cause for concern.

The committee was particularly concerned about the free licence the law gives to individuals to arrange adoptions and the opportunities this offers for abuse. Adoption agencies are subject to regulations which lay down safeguards before a child is placed for adoption. Where placements are made by independent persons or third parties, these safeguards do not operate at all, and although the adoption procedure and the court hearing itself provide some kind of a safety net, they cannot prevent a bad or indifferent placement.

I think that the House will share with me a horror at the possibilities of nightmare in a bad placement. The committee therefore recommends that, once the new registration procedure is in force, it should be made an offence for a person other than an adoption agency to place a child with a person who is not a relative for the purpose of adoption. It also proposes a similar offence to prevent persons who are not relatives from receiving a child for adoption.

I know that Ministers will wish to receive the views of hon. Members on this recommendation which seems to me to be both reasonable and important.

I turn now from the largest group with which we have to deal—that is, children offered for adoption by parents—to children living in a household containing a parent and someone other than a natural parent. I turn first to the case of children of a parent living with a step-parent.

The committee examines the position of a natural parent living with a stepparent who wishes to establish for the step-parent a regular legal relationship with the natural parent's child. At present, the only means of obtaining legal recognition and security for the relationship is by adoption. This is sometimes a more drastic and less natural solution than the circumstances require. The committee proposes that in such a situation the parent and step-parent should be able to use the provisions of the guardianship law.

I have already mentioned the increase in the number of adoptions by parents and step-parents. It is somewhat odd and unfortunate that, to achieve the very responsible relationship that in many situations the married couple desires, the mother should have to adopt her own child, by this very process severing the child legally from one of the child's natural parental families.

The other unnatural kind of adoption that can flow from this sort of situation is that of close relatives, such as grandmothers of grandchildren. With the resulting distortion of relationships mothers become sisters, and uncles and aunts become brothers and sisters. Sometimes the circumstances which have given rise to the adoption are temporary ones—for example, the natural mother is not able to look after her child at that time but later marries or finds suitable accommodation and could resume care of her child if the adoption order were revocable.

Taking the guardianship proposals as a whole, however—that is, the proposal that these sorts of household should have a guardianship which is revocable and does not cut the child off from the other half of his natural family, as an alternative to adoption—I must explain that legal complexities are involved. These are being examined by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is responsible for guardianship law.

I turn to the next sub-group of children—that is, illegitimate children living with one parent. There are three things I wish to say of these households, and I can say them briefly. First, we are waiting for the report of the Finer Committee. Secondly, the National Children's Bureau finds that these children are often much helped by adoption; at least, that is the evidence so far up to the age of 7. Thirdly, the mothers would undoubtedly be helped if they had access to a fully comprehensive child care service locally, including an adoption component such as the committee recommends should be established.

Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)

The Secretary of State has said that he is waiting for the Finer report. So are we all. Can he give any indication now as to when it is likely that the Finer Report will come before the House?

Sir K. Joseph

I think I can reasonably say that we expect the report early next year. If I am wrong in that, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who will seek to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, will correct what I have said.

I turn to the third category—children who are being cared for other than by parents. The first sub-group consists of those in care of local authorities or voluntary children's societies who are boarded out with foster parents. In the majority of such cases the aim is to restore the child to his natural parents.. The aim is sensible and proper, and most foster parents understand and accept that they are caring for a child in trust for the parent and they co-operate with the social worker to maintain links with the parent and to ease the child's return. That is the healthy and successful norm where a child is in care, or being fostered. Mercifully, there are many people with a talent for bringing up children who are willing to be a foster parent—although in our urban areas never anything like enough seem to be available today to do the job.

There is a small minority of cases, however, where a tussle develops between the natural parents and those foster parents who have cared for the child for a long time and with whom a strong bond has been forged. The House must recognise that no change in the law can of itself resolve this conflict. Moreover, any move to give rights, however qualified, to foster parents might, if ill judged, scare away from fostering natural parents who would otherwise gladly use it for shorter or longer periods for the benefit of their children.

To some extent these awkward situations can be kept to a minimum by skilful social work. The Committee suggested some legal changes, but it also recommended that urgent study should be made of steps to be taken to improve fostering practice. We have already accepted this recommendation and are setting up a working party, whose membership will be announced shortly, to compile a code of good fostering practice for the guidance of local authorities and voluntary organisations in boarding out children in their care. It will be in the form of a guide, which could be published for the use of social workers and others.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

The right hon. Gentleman says that he is setting up a working party, but the Home Office has already financed research and a comprehensive survey into this subject and recommendations have been produced by Robert Holman, in his book, "Trading in Children". Is it necessary to go through that process all over again?

Sir K. Joseph

The hon. Gentleman has taken the wrong point. I am talking of children fostered by registered voluntary societies or local authorities or, in the case of local authorities, with a view to adoption—and the Robert Holman book is about private fostering. I shall refer to that shortly.

The legal changes which the committee suggests have implications for the way in which local authorities exercise their powers and social workers their professional discretion, and for this reason have proved controversial.

Unless local authorities assume parental rights, or the child is the subject of a care order, parents are free at any time to reclaim their children from care and foster parents have no legal safeguards. The committee thought it important to prevent the disruption caused to a child by its abrupt removal from care, and suggested, therefore, that when a child had been in care for more than a year the natural parents should be required to give 28 days' notice of its removal. That would give all parties concerned a breathing space in which to prepare themselves for the change, to phase the child's return home and forestall the development of conflict It would also protect the child from any impulsive or arbitrary moves by an unstable mother. There would be nothing to prevent local authorities from waiving the notice or shortening it if they thought that desirable.

Another change recommended was that an additional ground for enabling, not obliging, a local authority to resolve to assume parental rights should be that the child had been in care for a continuous period of three years. Once they have assumed parental rights, local authorities can make long-term plans for the children in their care in the knowledge that they have legal security for their custody—which does not carry with it an automatic right to place children for adoption—and that this cannot be disrupted by the natural parents suddenly or irresponsibly deciding to reclaim their children. The committee believed that three years was long enough not to constitute an unwarrantable threat to parents who had been unable or unwilling to look after their children during that period, while a longer period would be too long in the life of a child.

I now turn to the committee's recommendations on the power to apply for guardianship or adoption. Some foster parents would welcome a relationship which did not go so far as adoption, but which would secure their position and enable them to be independent of the supervising local authority or child care agency. Some parents, too, would see an advantage in a relationship which enabled them to maintain links with their children while they were being looked after by someone else, and which could be ended at any time with a court's agreement—as guardianship may be—and the children themselves would feel more secure. The committee recommended that the existing guardianship law should be extended to cover circumstances such as these.

As regards foster parents, the committee acknowledged the need to provide safeguards so as not to undermine parents' confidence in the fostering system and it recommended certain time limits. It suggested that foster parents should not be allowed to apply for guardianship until they had cared for a child for the past 12 months and that when they had cared for a child for five years the natural parent or supervising agency should not be able to withdraw the child from their care at any time before the court hearing of their application.

Objections have been raised to this aspect of the proposals, on the ground that it is undesirable to impose arbitrary time limits and that, in order not to weaken the parents' confidence in the local authority or agency to which they have entrusted their children, applications by foster parents for custody should in all cases require the local authority's consent. I must say that I find the committee's proposals a very balanced answer to the varying factors, but I should welcome the views of the House on this subject.

Another change suggested by the committee regarding foster parents was that when they had looked after a child for five years they should be enabled to apply for a guardianship or adoption order whether the parents consented or not, and that the parents should not be able to remove the children, pending a court hearing, without the leave of the court. The object of this recommendation is to give the court the opportunity to consider whether an order would be in the long-term interests of the child, its welfare being the court's first consideration.

I shall not comment further on these proposals except to say that they have attracted a good deal of controversy, and I shall be glad to hear the views of the House. I must emphasise that the Government have not made any decision.

I turn to a very important group of children in the care of local authorities or voluntary children's agencies and needing permanent substitute families. These are mainly children in residential homes or nurseries, who have been given the poignant title of, "children who wait," in an admirable piece of research carried out by the Association of British Adoption Agencies—a study that I heartily recommend to those hon. Members who have not read it. This research forms the basis of a radical recommendation, to which I now come.

We are aware that there are a number of children who are or could be said to be lingering in the care of local authorities or voluntary societies, in homes or residential nurseries, because their parents cannot bring themselves to make a firm and realistic decision about their children's future. The research to which I have referred has brought out the scale of the problem. The study suggested that, according to the supervising social workers' own assessment, there were 6,000 to 7,000 children in care needing permanent substitute families, and about 2,000 of them could be adopted if they could be freed for adoption. Many of these children have been virtually abandoned by their parents, or are the victims of chance or of cumulative social failures, and are doomed to spend their childhood in care.

In some of these cases a court might well consider that there were grounds for dispensing with the parents' consent because they had persistently failed to discharge the obligations of a parent, or were withholding consent unreasonably. But under the present law there is no way of testing this without first placing the child with prospective adopters for the statutorily required three months' care and possession. Unless the local authority has assumed parental rights, or the child is the subject of a care order, the parents can frustrate the proceedings by removing the child before the court hearing. Because, therefore, there is no way of settling conflicts over parental rights before an adoption hearing, many children who need not do so if they could be freed for adoption are likely to spend their entire childhood in care.

To meet this situation the committee recommended that the law should enable a local authority or registered adoption society to apply to a court for the transfer of parental rights to the agency with a view to the child's adoption and for the parents' consent to be dispensed with on one of the statutory grounds, amended in the way that the committee had recommended. If the court granted the application, the agency would be free to concentrate on that most crucial activity—selecting a good home for the child. Clearly, the committee's diagnosis of the present situation was that the law and practice were too heavily tilted in favour of the rights of natural parents, however unnaturally or unreasonably they behaved, and against the long-term welfare of the children. It is for the House to help the Government to propose how society should exercise its responsibility towards its deprived children.

The evidence of the study, "Children who wait" suggests that a change of this kind would stimulate parents and local authorities into making more realistic decisions about the children for whom they hold responsibility. Children cannot be put into a deep freeze while adults make up their minds about their future. They go on growing and developing and an essential ingredient to their healthy and happy development is that they should know that they matter to some adult. They need stable relationships and some continuity of care and environment. For children in care who have already suffered some deprivation the need to make decisions about their future is compelling, where there is substantial evidence to indicate that it does not lie in his own home with his own parents.

A number of the committee's recommendations are linked with the important possibility which I have described of freeing children who are apparently doomed to stay in care all their childhood for some more satisfying relationship. First, there is the committee's proposal that there should be a systematic high standard child care service, including the adoption component, all over the country. Secondly, there are the proposals enabling a child to be freed for secure fostering. Thirdly, there are the proposals enabling fostering parents to apply for guardianship. Fourthly, there are the proposals which I have just described enabling a local authority or registered society to seek adoption for a child without the danger of parents who have apparently abandoned the child being able to reclaim the child at the last moment.

Among the other recommendations which the House may care to comment on are those recommending pilot schemes of payment of allowances to adopters to enable them to adopt a family of children. Some of the children surveyed in "Children Who Wait" were groups of brothers and sisters for whom it would be difficult to find a home as a family without some financial help. The com- mittee also recommended that local authorities be empowered to pay allowances, where need was shown, to foster parents who decided to take advantage of the new guardianship proposals.

I must refer to those children not covered by the report because they are fostered privately by their parents in foster homes not supervised by the local authority. Many hon. Members will have read the book mentioned earlier by the hon. Member for Norwood, namely, Robert Holman's study, "Trading in Children", and will have been as shocked as I was by the state of affairs revealed by him. Private fostering and illegal child-minding were not issues covered by the committee whose report we are considering today, but I should not like it to be thought, in a debate concerned primarily with the welfare of children, that the Government are not concerned about this large number of unprotected children. We are considering this problem in the wider context of services for pre-school children.

Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)

Among the many matters with which the Secretary of State understandably has not dealt there is one about which I am concerned—envisaged continuation of the jurisdiction of the magistrates' courts in adoption proceedings, albeit it is recommended that it should be transferred to the domestic branch of the magistrates' courts. Is it not undesirable that matters as sensitive as that which we are discussing should be dealt with in courts in which police officers in uniform still appear? Would it not be much more desirable, pending the establishment possibly of the family court, for the High Court and the county courts, exercising their civil jurisdictions, to deal with these matters?

Sir K. Joseph

I hesitate to enter into a discussion of that matter which concerns a number of my right hon. Friends, particularly the Lord Chancellor, but I will ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to see what can be said at this stage in answer to the hon. Gentleman's reference to that part of the committee's recommendations.

Although I have overstepped my half-hour, I have not mentioned all the ingredients of the committee's report. The committee did an extremely valuable job. The House should repeat its gratitude to its members and Chairman. I hope that the Government will be helped by a number of comments on the recommendations to which I have referred and on any others which hon. Members think are important. I repeat that the Government have not yet reached conclusions on the committee's recommendations. We shall listen with the greatest interest to the views expressed by hon. Members.

11.45 a.m.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

I add my tribute to the departmental committee for the work which it did. We all mourn the loss of Sir William Houghton, its first Chairman. He was an able and conscientious man who, as the Chief Education Officer of the Inner London Education Authority, was used to the problems of inequality in opportunity among children and conflicts between interests. He was not afraid of controversy. He was dedicated in education and to the emancipation of children from the handicaps into which they were born. We all very much regret his death.

I agree with the Secretary of State that the committee ably and lucidly discharged the duty laid upon it. The report is headed as being about adoption, but its scope is much wider than that. The committee was absolutely right to consider guardianship and fostering and the inter-locking range of opportunities for homefinding for children denied the precious opportunity of growing up in loving and caring families headed and nurtured by their natural parents. It was right to conclude that adoption could not be seen as a self-contained compartment of child care.

The committee's deliberations were on matters over which the child has little or no control, although often children have decided views about the future. That is well illustrated at the end of Janet Rowe's book, where she relates an anecdote about two children in a children's home. One child explained to the other the inadequacies of his mother, and the other child replied, "If you do not want her, I will have her".

Although children have no control over the decisions about them, those decisions and the decisions which Parliament ultimately makes are bound to have an irreversible psychological effect and, in the case of adoption, an irreversible legal effect on the child for the rest of its life. The work of the committee therefore carried very great responsibility to those who cannot stick up for themselves.

The committee's decisions were also about a subject involving agonising conflicts of interest between natural parent and substitute parent, not only for the parents involved—using the word "parent" genetically—but for those who have to administer the law. The committee's task therefore was difficult and weighty and its recommendations, if implemented, will affect the prospects and stability of many thousands of children as well as the society in which they have to grow up. When we make a wrong decision about the care of children, the consequences come back to haunt society for many years thereafter. It is therefore of great credit to the committee, first, that it produced a unanimous report and, secondly, that the unanimous recommendations have, on the whole, been widely welcomed, and I wish to add my support to the main line of its recommendations.

The broad principles which we need to observe when discussing this subject are, first—and here I use Janet Rowe's words— To create a flexible range of provisions for substitute family care. Neither rigid separation of fostering and adoption"—— and she might well have added "guardianship"— nor differing standards, nor the confused and unplanned substitute of one for the other should be allowed to continue. We need to provide a range of interlocking alternatives for permanent substitute homes.

The second principle which we should observe is that whatever law we devise it should take account of the differing social, cultural and linguistic patterns of the parents and children involved and ensure that their expectations are neither disappointed nor misconceived. I wish to give an example of what can go wrong. Sixty per cent. of private fosterings are done by West African parents. A West African mother may well say to foster parents, "I give you my child". What she means is, "I am giving my child into your care." But a receiving parent may believe that she is transferring the proprietorship, if hon. Members will pardon the expression, of the child. It is that kind of misconceived and disappointed expectation that must be eradicted.

I said that the report had been widely welcomed. I have had one overwhelming impression in talking about it to social workers, local authorities and adoption agencies. It is that after due consultation this report should find it way into law as early as possible. I must accuse the Government of quite inexcusable delay in making known their views on the report and I must also criticise them for the total absence of preparation for legislation. The matter has been raised several times. I have raised it at Question Time and have received no guidance about legislation or the Government's views. I raised the matter during the proceedings on the Guardianship Bill and received no guidance at all. I very much regretted that part of the right hon. Gentleman's opening remarks which showed that the Government had no immediate plans for legislation.

The consensus among those who have commented on the report is that legislation is absolutely vital. It is 13 months since the report was published. It is not just that fact alone. The report was preceded, although the committee started work in 1969, by two studies on adoption. It was also preceded by a major review of adoption practice to which it refers in paragraph 3. Yet despite all that we have had no news from the Government about the report until today. We have had no Green Paper or White Paper and no mention of the subject in the Gracious Speech.

I want to know when we are to get legislation dealing with this question. I urge the Secretary of State and the Government to reconsider their views and to try to legislate in this Session. I am sure that all hon. Members would aid the legislation. It would not be contentious and hon. Members would be only too glad to give their backing to enacting legislation as quickly as possible.

I do not propose to give a comprehensive list of reasons why this should be done urgently but I will give some indicators of the urgency of getting the law right. I hope that these will give some idea of my own thinking on the subject. First, there is that stark figure of 90,000 children in care at any one time. That represents, in some London boroughs, one child in 50. They are children in care at a cost of £25 to £30 a week. There is the other stark statistic—that of the children going into the care of a local authority for more than six months the chances are that only one in four will ever return to his natural parents. It is therefore a matter of human and financial necessity to find placements in loving, caring, substitute homes for more of these children.

The next indicator of urgency is the incontestable link between delinquency and either the broken home or the absence of a home at all. Statistics show that 12 per cent. of boys in approved schools have spent some time in children's homes in the care of local authorities and that 6 per cent. of boys in approved schools have at one time or another been with private foster parents. Any Government who are serious about reducing deviancy among young people must give first priority to legislation which will make it easier to find permanent substitute homes for these children. It is the caring home multiplied by security and stability that produces the best results.

It is better to have indifferent homes for the whole of a child's upbringing than to have a succession of good, caring, foster parents but with the disruption that occurs from one placement to another. There is also an incontestable link between deprivation and underachievement which leads to the same conclusion that we ought to have legislation to find permanent homes more quickly. There is an increasing number of cases coming before the courts involving "tug-of-love" problems. The law has not stood still, and in the face of the inertia of the Government the courts are making and developing the law for themselves.

There are too many situations where, with proper counselling about the nature of fostering and the rights and responsibilities of the natural and foster parents, the "tug-of-love" situation could be altogether avoided. There is also the research by Robert Holman, referred to by the Secretary of State. I quote two sets of statistics from that report which show the scandalous situation. The first shows that 75 per cent. of all foster parents would not have been considered as suitable foster parents by a local authority. The second is that during the year of the study 90 per cent. of natural parents of privately fostered children were not visited by children's officers and 17.5 per cent. of foster children were not seen for a whole year by children's officers while 72 per cent. of foster fathers were not seen for an entire year. This is a scandalous situation and it is because of that that the "tug-of-love" problem arises, there are misunderstandings, misconceptions and disappointed expectations.

Next, there is the number of black handicapped or older and disturbed child-who must be found permanent homes. Further, we have only to utter the name "Maria Colwell" to give a number of reasons for the urgency of legislation. I have given only a few indications of the need for change. In the words of the Association of British Adoption Agencies a change in the law would not demand large expenditure of money and would achieve better protection for children and a better use of existing resources. Let us have no more delay. Let the right hon. Gentleman take what I think will be the feeling of the House, that there ought to be a greater degree of urgency in Government thinking on this and let us ensure that we have legislation as quickly as possible. There is a generation of children without homes who cannot afford to wait. The society that looks after them cannot afford to wait either.

I come to the recommendations of the committee. I accept and welcome the principle, which should be written into our law, that the long-term welfare of the child should be the paramount consideration, and that this should apply to the decision about adoption and guardianship and also to the decision as to whether the consent of a natural parent is being unreasonably withheld. I am stating the principle a little more strongly than did the right hon. Gentleman or the committee. I believe it is right that greater emphasis should be given to the long-term welfare of the child. In opera- ting this principle we should make it crystal clear that the affluence of guardians or of adoptive parents must not be allowed to outweigh the claims of the financially poor natural mother who, although she is poor, has evinced love, care and attention.

Mr. Abse

Is my hon. Friend aware that the very reason why the committee shifted from its original concept and came to the view that all the circumstances had to be taken into account, and that the first consideration must be the long-term future of the child, was precisely because it saw very clearly the grave danger that wealthy would-be parents could have a head start over what may be quite adequate but financially poor parents?

Mr. Fraser

I accept that, and perhaps I am putting the reservations in a different form of words. Perhaps we can agree on this. There is a danger of the courts weighing the balance between the comparative wealth and status of the adoptive parents and the strained resources of the natural parents. That ought never to take place. The welfare of the child must be the first consideration.

I come to the two sets of recommendations touched on by the right hon. Gentleman. First, there are those which enable us to have an agreed transfer of parental rights by the natural parent to a local authority or adoption agency. This is dealt with in recommendations Nos. 37–45. Recommendation No. 53 is not quite the same thing. It enables the local authority or adoption agency to apply to the court against the parents' wishes for the transfer of parental rights and to dispense with the consent of the natural parents to the adoption of the child, thus freeing many more children for adoption, children who may otherwise be condemned to spend the rest of their infant lives in a local authority home. There must be adequate safeguards for putative fathers, and the procedures must be fully explained.

I accept both recommendations, first, because they make it easier to place children for adoption and, secondly, because they separate the two processes. By allowing the decision of the natural parent to be made before the adoption case comes before the court and therefore declaring that child to be free for adoption, we remove the agony and uncertainty that attends every set of adoption proceedings. This uncertainty is created by the right, up to the very last moment, for the natural parent to withdraw or withhold consent. A child may be with adoptive parents for many months—often longer than the statutory minimum three months—and the adoptive parents might have formed a well-found expectation that their relationship with the adopted child was to be permanent. On the very night before the adoption proceedings, perhaps as a result of seeing a television programme or visiting the cinema—I have known this to happen—the mother may decide to go to the court and say that she wants to withdraw consent. That is intolerable. That is why I welcome the division of the process between the giving of consent, the transfer of parental rights, and the adoption process. That enables us to see whether the adoptive parents are suitable to take care of the child.

The other advantage of the parental rights transfer procedure in cases where the local authority or adoption agency applies to free a child for adoption in the face of inertia, absence or opposition of the natural parents, is that it makes it easier to provide permanent substitute homes for children who might otherwise remain in less secure surroundings. I have said that children who are in care of the local authority for more than six months have only a one-in-four chance of going back to their families. That is a powerful argument in support of the recommendation. Three out of five children who have been in a local authority home for more than six months are likely to remain in care not just to the age of 15 but up to 18. These are overwhelming arguments in favour of making it easier to place children in permanent substitute homes by adoption or otherwise—not necessarily by adoption because adoption should not be treated as the only method.

There is a real difficulty when adoption proceedings are under way and the mother disappears. Where that happens it must be made easier for the sponsoring organisation or local authority to free the child for adoption. I hope that the Secretary of State will take note of this.

I come to the recommendations about subsidised adoptions. The Secretary of State should introduce a pilot scheme, as recommended by the committee and by many other committees and agencies. There is no shortage of parents to adopt one or two young, healthy children, usually white children. Often the lists are closed to parents who wish to adopt. A problem arises with large families where ideally siblings should remain together. Examples were given, either in the Houghton Report or in another document, of families of three or four children being abandoned. One child might be placed with loving foster parents who have not the resources to take on the whole family. There is a great deal to be said in such a case for subsidising adoption—perhaps only as an experiment. That may well help the adoption of disturbed and physically and mentally handicapped children. The child's chances of adoption should not be impaired by a lack of money where caring and loving adoptive parents are willing to adopt.

I agree with the Secretary of State that there should be a comprehensive adoption service, but I disagree with his tentative thinking on registration. He thought that the registration of adoption agencies should be done by local authorities. I take the contrary view, first, because only about half the local authorities operate an adoption service and, secondly, because there is a risk of widely differing standards between one part of the country and another. I come down in favour of national registration to obtain uniform standards.

I hope that the Secretary of State will give all his help to the Adoption Resources Exchange, particularly in its efforts to arrange the adoption of black children. There is a pattern of excess demand for young white children and excess supply of black children. The reasons for this are much more complex than might be thought. The Secretary of State should authorise research into ways of securing the more ready adoption of black children. This involves cultural problems and the preservation of identity of the black child. Further research into this subject would be well justified.

I have had representations to the effect that provision should be made to allow adoption by serving members of the Armed Forces. There are two main difficulties. If the Secretary of State would like to know of other difficulties, I shall write to him about them. First, the mobility of Service men makes it more difficult for them to be chosen for placement. Secondly, Service men are not always preferred by adoption agencies and local authorities. Service men should have a fair deal, and I suggest that the Secretary of State should look into the difficulties and encourage the establishment of an adoption agency to serve the needs of soldiers, sailors and airmen who are as much entitled as other members of the community to the privilege of adoption.

About half of all adoptions are by a parent of his or her own child—or by both parents. I am by no means satisfied that for a legitimate child adoption should conceal the child's real identity. The child and the parents have nothing to be ashamed of. Adoption may confer a new set of legal relationships where a widow and her second husband adopt the widow's child of a first marriage. In that case there should be an "open" adoption procedure, creating a new legal relationship but with the minimum of legal formality—perhaps a simple registration process not involving the courts. I ask the Secretary of State to consider that suggestion.

Adoption, guardianship and fostering should be seen as interlocking ways of providing substitute homes. They should not be regarded in isolation. The aim must be to provide a permanent, secure and loving home and family relations for every child by choosing which legal form of parental link is most appropriate in the circumstances. I therefore welcome and endorse Recommendations Nos. 20 to 29, which enlarge the circumstances in which guardianship can be awarded to persons other than parents and make guardianship a suitable alternative where adoption is not appropriate.

I am thinking here particularly of relatives. I represent a constituency with a large West Indian population, among whom there is an extended relationship which is often much more supportive than that which exists in some indigenous families. Often, one sister will allow another sister to look after her child for many years. The relationship between that child and its true mother will not change. On the other hand, no contribution may be made for the support of that child, and a close relationship may grow up between the aunt and the child she has fostered. It seems right that there should not be an adoption order in that case, because it would deny the child's true identity. On the other hand, the foster aunt—or whoever it may be—should be given a great deal more legal security.

I welcome those proposals because they seek to remove problems of foster parents, since until recently the courts have been unable to deal with the agonising tug-of-love situations. The courts have now tended to extend the law on their own initiative.

I commend Recommendation No. 36 which suggests that, where foster parents care for a child for more than five years and application is made, the child should not be taken out of the hands of those parents until the case goes to court.

The Secretary of State also mentioned cases where parents can take a child out of the care of a local authority. As a general principle we should try to avoid sudden disruption of the links between a child and its environment. Therefore, I hope that the standstill period—it might be only a month or so—can be built into all situations where a child is likely to be suddenly torn from his surroundings. We should legislate for guardianship as an alternative to adoption, because this might make it easier to provide permanent homes and more security for those who care for children.

I have feelings of grave disquiet on the subject of private fostering. The Secretary of State said that the Houghton Report did not deal with private fostering, but surely the two are linked, because, in line with some of the recommendations, foster parents who have cared for a child for only one year would be able to apply for a guardianship order with the consent of the local authority. I feel very unhappy about this situation since 75 per cent. of foster parents were considered by the Robert Holman study to be unsuitable as foster parents if they were to be no longer appointed by local authorities. There is a great deal of concern among adoption agencies, social workers and natural parents about the effect of recent court decisions and about the application of Recommendations Nos. 21 and 36 of the Houghton Report which by one method or another would enable foster parents to keep the child.

I do not disagree with the recommendations, although I have my doubts about the one-year period after which the foster parents can apply for guardianship. I regard that period as too short. Apart from that reservation, I do not basically disagree with the two recommendations. I must confess my sympathy for foster parents in the well-publicised tug-of-love cases. It is vital to eliminate or reduce the number of cases where there is an agonising and emotional conflict between the expectations of foster parents, the natural parents and the child itself.

There is far too much misunderstanding of the nature of fostering. When a fostering arrangement begins it should be made clear that this involves the natural parents commending a child into the care of foster parents as a temporary arrangement, with the intention of withdrawing that child from the foster parents after a given period of time. Far too many foster parents believe fostering to be a way of getting a child by bypassing adoption procedures. That understanding must be eliminated.

I believe that there should be proper supervision of placements, full explanations about the nature of fostering, clarification of the expectations of all the parties, and reminders from time to time about the duties of the natural parents when their children are fostered. If these suggestions were adopted, it would promote less cases of conflict and less tug-of-love situations. If those suggestions are adopted, the recommendations in the Houghton Report will have even more validity.

Given certain safeguards, in cases where natural parents break the emotional and social bargain reached with the foster parents it is surely right to allow foster parents to go for adoption or guardianship proceedings. The test will be the paramount consideration of the welfare of the child. What would weigh with the court in these circumstances is the fact that the conduct of the natural parents has made it in the child's interest—not in the foster parents' interests—that it should remain with the foster parents.

I conclude by setting out some detailed suggestions about fostering, which I think is a great cause for concern. First, I suggest that in fostering it should be the duty of natural parents as well as of foster parents to give notification to the local authority. This would emphasise to the natural parents the seriousness of their position and increase the chances of fostering arrangements being notified to the local authority. Secondly, I believe that notification should take place for every child—which does not happen at the moment—so that it would not be the general act of fostering that required notification but the notification of each child as an individual.

Thirdly, I suggest that in fostering cases the local authority should have a statutory duty to pay a minimum number of visits, to make clear to foster end natural parents the rights, responsibilities and consequences of fostering and to satisfy themselves that the foster parents are suitable and able to undertake the proposed arrangements and fully understand their duties. Fourthly, I believe that child care officers in fostering cases should emphasise the importance of natural parents remaining in close and regular contact with their children.

Fifthly, I suggest that foster parents should be allowed to apply for a guardianship order when they have looked after a child for a year—indeed, I believe that the period should be longer than a year. Child care officers should emphasise to natural parents that if they break their duties a guardianship or adoption order may eventually be made.

Sixthly, we should investigate the possibility of using local authorities or approved fostering societies as a medium for fostering in place of private arrangements. The report contains the controversial recommendation that private adoption should cease. If we accept that, then we must also accept the corollary that private fostering arrangements should cease as well, or should be minimised.

Seventhly, in fostering cases guidance should be given to children's officers about the necessity of explaining to both foster and natural parents the cultural and linguistic background of children and the expectations of their parents.

I wish to make two final points. The first is that legislation must come as speedily as possible. I am disappointed with the prospective programme of legislation. Secondly, I wish to reply to those who criticise the Houghton proposals because they believe that they impinge on the right of natural parents. The consequences of getting our law and practice about children wrong, or of not acting at all, are not just consequences with which the children and their parents must live; they are consequences with which society must live, and often the consequences are that society must pay the cost. Society also has rights in the matter, and I think it is right that the Government should act—and act quickly.

12.18 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)

I shall not take more than a couple of minutes at most—which, for me, will be a change.

I am sure the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) will forgive me if I do not take up his various comments. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I hope that the Government will not rush into this highly complex matter. Nobody could have listened to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services without realising the enormous complexity of this subject. I am sure that the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), who was a member of the Houghton Committee, also will underline the complexities of the matter and emphasise how stupid it would be for any Government to go into legislation on this subject without the most careful thought and consideration.

I intervene in this debate only to pay tribute—perhaps again unusually for me—to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, on the wonderful way in which he has carried out his job. The country is extremely fortunate to have not only such a brilliant Minister but one who so clearly—and so necessarily in his job—feels in his heart about the matters with which he deals. I know that my right hon. Friend hates these compliments and that he is disliking every moment of them, but I wish to congratulate him on the way in which he is running his Department as well as on the support which he is receiving from it. I hope that my right hon. Friend will accept these remarks from me, because the country owes him a great debt of gratitude.

12.21 p.m.

Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)

It has been well said that adoption is an ambitious technical method of resolving sterility, illegitimacy and the nurture of rejected or unattached children. It is also an imaginative and sensitive human enterprise whereby biology jostles passion, and where irresponsibility, inadequacy and sometimes evil are met by love, concern and pity. The hon. Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) is justified in saying that the matter is complex. To presume to intervene by laws in this subtle process is to invite condemnation as a brusque intruder. But the attempt has to be made, as the report amply makes clear.

The worth of a society is judged by the concern of one generation for the next. This report, with its 92 recommendations, shows how much more can be done by our society by law and administrative action to reach out to some of the most helpless and defenceless in our community, those children who by the death, fecklessness, inadequacy, irresponsibility or the tragic poverty of their parents, find themselves unwanted orphans. I am sure that if the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devon-port (Dame Joan Vickers) were here she would have already expressed to the Minister her thanks for his kind words about the chairman, and his generous words about the work of the committee. I am sure that she, like all of us who served on the committee, would, however, have felt that the best thanks which could have come for the committee's work would have been a Second Reading of a Bill implementing the proposals in the report.

When the hon. Member for Yarmouth says that the matter needs thought, he says that only because he is unaware of its history. A year has passed since the report was published, but the House will recall the long haul that preceded the setting up of the committee. As far back as 1964, echoing the views being expressed by the Association of British Adoption Agencies, which represents both the voluntary bodies and local authorities, I was urging the need for the overhaul of our adoption laws. It was five years of pressure and lobbying from both sides of the House which culminated in an all-party group of Members of Parliament seeing the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan)—and that ensured, to his credit, that a committee was finally appointed. That committee was keenly aware of the fate of the report of the Curtis Committee which lay on Government shelves for four years while many children suffered unnecessarily before legislation came into existence.

In the minds of some if not all members of the Committee, every possible action was taken to ensure that there could be no possibility of any bureaucrat seeking justification for delays by pleading when the report came before the House that there had been insufficient consultation or insufficient research.

The committee worked with considerable zeal, after being appointed in July 1969, to ensure that by October 1970 it published an interim document which could be seen by all who were interested in the subject and which invited consultation from all interested bodies. Those bodies responded. The committee took, in addition to written submissions, oral evidence in 48 sessions from 40 organisations, and almost a score of the most experienced in this work. Contemporaneoulsy, as the Secretary of State pointed out, the Committee commissioned eight pieces of research to assist in making objective judgments founded on fact, not on whim.

Last week the Kilbrandon Report was before the House. It was full of dissenting notes, qualifications and caveats, and the House viewed the report with great scepticism. In this delicate and complex matter, with a committee which represented in many ways all the vested interests, including people primarily concerned about the unmarried mother, and with the director of the National Council on the committee in addition to representatives from the adoption societies and the Church organisations, all brought a variety of views and yet arrived at a great deal of unanimity. I hope that I played a little part in bringing that about.

Although there are bound to be reservations expressed in the debate from all sides and although we have arguments presented by the Secretary of State and by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) about whether there should be central registration and all the other arguments presented in the report, these detailed arguments are matters which will have to be decided in a Committee stage. Although the Secretary of State, with customary courtesy, inflates our egoism a little by inviting our views so that he may weigh up what is to be done, the fact remains that we could talk from now until Kingdom come without getting unanimity of opinion on every point. In the end, all these matters will have to be decided in a Committee stage.

The House should consider the consequences of this continuing delay. I welcome the fact that, deservedly, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood reproached the Government. I do not reproach the Secretary of State. I cannot but agree with some of the comments which the hon. Member for Yarmouth made about the right hon. Gentleman's commitment. How could I do otherwise? The right hon. Gentleman has been my regular pair for 15 years. But the fact remains, as he said rather defensively, that he received the report only at Easter. It would be a tragic consequence if a major administrative move which has taken this work away from the Home Office into the right hon. Gentleman's Department and which was intended presumably to help children should result in unnecessary and almost culpable delay.

The House and the country should understand that as long as the report's recommendations are not implemented and a comprehensive national service is not introduced by laying these mandatory duties upon the local authorities, there will be thousands of children and would-be parents who will be involuntarily annually participating in a macabre adoption lottery.

Society is choosing parents for these children by chance, not by skilled scrutiny. Whether a child will receive worthy parents is entirely dependent upon geography, not upon genuine availability. It cannot be otherwise as long as we have a situation where almost half the local authorities in England and Wales fail to act as adoption agencies and we have a patchwork of voluntary societies, some splendid, but too many restricting their services only to a limited group, too many lacking trained social work staff, too many unable to accept children with special needs, and few indeed having the resources to offer what should surely always be the genuine alternative to adoption—namely, continuing help to mothers, particularly unmarried mothers, who wish to keep their children.

As long as the report is not implemented, adoption for many will be not a blessing but a source of bewilderment and confusion. Without the alternative of the concept of guardianship proffered in the report, far too many legitimate children following upon divorce will be unnecessarily and permanently alienated from one of their parents as the newly married partner becomes the legal father or mother. Far too many illegitimate children, as grandparents adopt them, at a later date go through the traumatic experience of learning that an older sister may be their mother.

Even worse—the point has been mentioned but it needs to be emphasised—as a result of the inertia and failure to implement legislation along the lines of these recommendations, thousands of children are in institutions in care who could be adopted or whose futures could be planned with the aid of long-term fostering. But they remain—at least 6,000 of them—in homes and nurseries because the legal machinery which could allow the caring authorities to assume parental rights as a preliminary to an adoption hearing does not exist.

These children find the game that their parents play with them is a cat-and-mouse charade. While the parents fantasise that one day in the indefinite future they will reclaim their children, the little ones, rarely, if ever, seeing their feckless parents, sit and wait. With no legal powers to assume parental rights, even though a child has not seen his parents for years, there is a dangerous inclination for authority to shield behind the code which, to quote the words of counsel to the inquiry in the Maria Colwell case, states that there is a current belief in child care that children should not be taken out of the care of their natural parents unless there was clear evidence that they would suffer if they were not removed. That is not the philosophy behind this report. Explicit and implicit in the report is the emphasis that children, as well as inadequate parents, must have rights. Our recommendation, when dealing with refusal of parental consent, is that blood ties must not be the first consideration, but that, while the court shall have regard to all the circumstances, the first consideration must be the effect of the parents' decision on the long-term welfare of the child. We also recommend that after a child has been in care for three long years—half a lifetime in the span of a young child—the local authority should have discretion to assume parental rights. Again, we recommend that foster parents who have cared for a child for five years should not have the little one snatched away without a court hearing.

By all such recommendations we are eroding the philosophy that, according to counsel in the Maria Colwell case, "inevitably"—that is his word—led to the terrible slaying of this little girl. I do not suggest that if the recommendations in the report had been implemented that tragedy would not have taken place; but if the philosophy and the powers recommended within it had been implemented, it would have been less likely to occur. Nor do I suggest that the tragic conflicts of sometimes tug-of-love and other times tug-of-war children, which have rightly aroused the indignation of the nation, would end if the report were implemented. Only sensitive case work will do that. But if conflicts arise, our recommendations would certainly ensure that they could be dealt with and resolved in the children's interests in a civilised manner without the terrible and searing damaging accompaniments that have rightly been viewed with alarm by the public.

Certainly the options recommended within the report to enable a mother to make an early choice after the birth of a child, after fully considering the implications, to relinquish her rights could remove some of the agony of the existing procedure where, again and again, the unmarried mother finds herself repeatedly having to face the terrible decision and repeatedly finds her conflicts reactivated. In the same way, the anxiety of the would-be adopters, fearful that a change of mind by the mother may take the child away, could be ended so that they need not fear to love the child, as now, before the final adoption order is made.

In so many ways, from the proposal that a child should have the right to know something of his identity to resolving the problems of intestacy which now exist and can disadvantage an adopted child, legislation would help. We all know that often this House can make declarations and pass legislation, but that, because we are dealing with human relationships and conduct, we cannot influence events very much. However, this is a sphere in which we can influence the lives of people who cannot speak for themselves.

It is not as though we are asking for additional expenditure. That is the usual reason for delay. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood referred to the cost of maintaining a child in residential care. If it costs only £1,000 a year to maintain a child in residential care, with at least 2,000 children needing adoption inhibited by the law from being placed, it costs £2 million a year. If it goes on, as is likely, £20 million will be spent over the next ten years. Worse still, the needs of these children will not have been met. So there is no reason financially for the report not being implemented.

One of the saddest things, when one speaks to field workers or visits these homes, is the recurring request that can be made by children of five and six years of age who unnecessarily remain in these homes: "Are we not old enough now to have parents?" Then one realises what a heavy responsibility falls on our society. They are the children who wait. They are waiting now. They are waiting for us. In my view, it is culpable if the legislation flowing from this report is not implemented with great and considerable expedition.

12.38 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

I have often said that important matters are considered in this House on Fridays. Matters affecting the family, marriage, and so on, are of far greater importance than the matters about which we often squabble from Monday to Thursday with a full House. Yet, when we come to a subject like this, very few hon. Members find it possible to attend and to take part in the debate. It is most unfortunate.

Obviously the committee has devoted immense time and trouble to its work. I am sure that the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) played a large part in that work, and we are grateful to him.

I have always been worried about this subject. Obviously one tries to do what is best, but there is no happy solution to the irregular family. The best solution is for a child to be brought up in the affectionate home of its natural parents. All we can seek for the child who does not have such a home is the best substitute.

Fostering has not been a satisfactory substitute, and it applies to a large number of children. My first comment, therefore, is that the most disturbing element is the increase in the number of children who are concerned, and that derives primarily from the increase in the number of illegitimate births. That is a most disturbing phenomenon, as is the increase in the number of divorces.

The children whose problems we are debating today are in some degree the fruit of our attitudes to the institutions of our society. I have always been worried about the relaxation of matrimonial law, because I have always believed that such a step would lead to more divorces, and that is what it has done. I had a great respect for A. P. Herbert, whom I knew for many years, starting before the war, but I remember that when he introduced his Matrimonial Causes Bill and said that changing the law of divorce would not affect the state of mind in which people entered upon marriage I did not accept that as true, and I am sure that it is not.

People enter upon marriage, and, unfortunately, when they encounter difficulties—everybody does—they give up trying at just about the point where trying should begin. There are children with problems, because people are promiscuous before marriage. That is why this problem exists today.

Fostering—and I say this without wishing in any way to be critical of or unkind to the many excellent foster parents—is a wholly unsatisfactory operation, and far too many children have remained with foster parents when some more permanent arrangement could have been made. I say to the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) that I should think it wrong and, indeed, almost impossible to abolish private fostering. That is not something that we could or should try to do.

I am entirely in favour of the general drift of the report in trying to get more children out of foster homes after they have been there for a considerable period and into a more permanent relationship, but I am rather inclined to the view that the major contribution will be made administratively. It is my view that the children's department should take a more active and positive view—I dislike using the word "positive", because it usually means nothing—or should be less hesitant about taking the initiative of proposing adoption, or it may be guardianship—but adoption is the best course. Case histories show that there has been undue hesitancy in proposing adoption when children have been with foster parents for a considerable time.

I am more worried about the report's emphasis on the pre-eminence of the child's welfare. That sounds a self-evident proposition. One says that the welfare of the child should be the first and paramount consideration, and that phrase is found in the Guardianship of Infants Act, but I have always regarded it as a meaningless patter of words.

There is a tendency, perhaps more so nowadays than ever before, to put people into categories—to talk about children, parents, and so on but human life consists of a succession of individuals, each of whom goes through all the stages of life. A person is first a child, then an adolescent, then a parent, and, finally, an old person. One cannot talk about the benefit of the child being the paramount consideration. That child will grow up to be an adult, and his welfare and interest lie in the general good conduct of the world.

If there is a danger of a child growing up into a world in which, to take an extreme example, good, affectionate natural parents are in danger of losing their children because a court says so, it is not in his paramount interest—or in his interest at all—to grow up into that world. I therefore say that one cannot select a period in a child's life and say, at that point and in relation to that period—nor is it a long-term interest, anyway——

Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)

Where in the report does the hon. and learned Gentleman find provision for "good, affectionate natural parents"—those were his words—to have their children taken away from them by the courts? There is no such provision.

Mr. Bell

The hon. Gentleman cannot have been listening to me. I said that I was taking an extreme example. It often shortens an argument to push it to the extreme in order to illustrate what one means. There is, of course, no such provision in the report, but if I take an extreme case which is not in the report it may prove to be a little more easy to apply the report itself.

Mr. Whitehead

That is a debating point.

Mr. Bell

It is not. A familiar procedure in argument is to exaggerate for the purpose of clarity.

It cannot be in the interests of a child to grow up into institutions which are not properly balanced. I am sure that the interests of the natural parents must be given serious and heavy consideration. After all, we are dealing with human institutions. These questions go to a court—and it does not matter whether it is a county court, a domestic court or a children's court—the people who sit in it must be magistrates, and those who appear before it are advocates, if necessary, and they have to consider the evidence brought before them and decide upon that evidence.

It is much easier to bring evidence or to formulate arguments which are based upon material considerations than to do so upon intangible considerations. Sixpence outweighs an awful lot of sentiment. I know that money is not the only material consideration—there is housing, and so on—but the intangible considerations of the tie of blood, which is so much despised nowadays—just as all genetic factors are diminished from their true importance—the understanding of a parent for a child and, in particular, the understanding of two parents for a child because they see in him bits of each of them and understand how his mind works, are extremely important. Even a not very good home—perhaps with parents who quarrel and argue among themselves—may be a better home for a child than a more stable, prosperous and calm home of people who are blood strangers to the child.

I am not arguing that the consent of parents should never be dispensed with. What I am saying is that I shall want to look with great care, and some degree of reluctance, almost, at the form of words in which this is put. If the language of the Guardianship of Infants Act is transported into an adoption measure, and if it is said that the welfare of the child shall be a paramount consideration——

Mr. Clinton Davis

That is not in Recommendation No. 51. That recommendation says that The statute law should provide that, in deciding whether a parent is withholding consent to adoption unreasonably, the court shall have regard to all the circumstances, first consideration"— quite distinct from what the hon. and learned Gentleman has been saying— being given to the effect of the parent's decision on the long-term welfare of the child. This is, is it not, something between the proposition advanced in the Guardianship of Infants Act and the body of case law which has been introduced over the years in relation to adoption? Does not the hon. and learned Gentleman think that he has missed the bus on this?

Mr. Bell

It is very kind of the hon. Member to help me catch a bus, but I have not missed one. The words that he has read out are the words to which I am addressing myself—all together. The words of that recommendation will not be the words of the section, as the hon. Gentleman will realise. In guardianship cases, of course, all the circumstances are considered, but the rule laid down is that the welfare of the child should be the paramount consideration. There have not been many speeches today, but they have laid a good deal of emphasis on that. I think that it was the hon. Member for Pontypool who himself used the words "first and paramount".

Mr. Abse

Would the hon. and learned Gentleman not put words in my mouth? In my opinion, he has not studied our recommendation. We have made it abundantly clear that we do not go along with the idea of "paramount considera- tion", and that when we are dealing with dispensing with consent we want to embody in statute form the best case law which has come out of the House of Lords in some of the cases, which emphasies the fact that all the circumstances have to be taken into account and that the first consideration must be the long-term welfare of the child. It must be exasperating to members of the committee listening to the hon. and learned Member to find that a matter which was resolved after many discussions should be dealt with in such a peremptory and perfunctory manner, because he clearly has not read the report.

Mr. Bell

It is kind of the hon. Member to intervene in that way. I do not know what he meant by "paramount". It was probably a slip of the tongue.

Mr. Abse

I did not use the word,

Mr. Bell

I thought that the hon. Member did; if he did not, of course I withdraw. Perhaps it was his hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser)——

Mr. John Fraser

indicated assent.

Mr. Bell

The hon. Member nods—so he used the word "paramount". I think that he was justified. What else does the hon. Member for Pontypool think is meant by the "first"? Does he think that it means that it is the matter that will be dealt with first in point of time? Of course it does not mean that. The circumstances will be considered, but the first consideration—the predominant consideration—is to be the welfare of the child. The hon. Member knows that that is what it was intended to mean in the report, and that is the way in which it will be operated by the courts.

I have not been entirely happy about some decisions of the courts, even under the existing law. Not long ago there was a case in relation to a Nigerian child, in which I thought that the Court of Appeal reached quite the wrong decision in taking the child away from its parents—a Nigerian couple studying in this country—and giving it to the foster parents, not allowing it to go back to Nigeria. That was before this proposed shift in the emphasis had taken place.

I wanted only to say those cautionary words. I hope that the slightly acid exchanges which appear to have taken place in the last few minutes will not obscure the fact that, basically, I am in sympathy with the general intent of this report, as I said. But I hope that the hon. Member for Pontpyool will not adopt too much of the attitude of a possessive natural parent about the report: it must be subject to criticism. This is a very important subject, and there are 92 recommendations. I hope that the hon. Member will feel that the matter will be clarified and improved by debate. As he said, there must be a significant Committee stage in which all points of view can be expressed.

It is important that we should not get into a fashion or a cult, and just at the moment there is a current of public opinion, started by certain reported cases, against the claim of the natural parent. I am anxious to see that at the conceiving moment of legislation that does not go a little further than it should. If it does, we may do harm where we hope to confer benefit.

12.56 p.m.

Mr. Bert Oram (East Ham, South)

I am glad of this opportunity to join in what I am sure will be the general welcome of the House for this report. Even the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Bell), who introduced more doubts into the debate than anyone else has done, at least said that the general trend of the report is one that he follows. Like others, I want to compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) and the other members of the committee on producing what I believe to be a very wise set of recommendations in a very difficult area.

I should also like to pay tribute to the first chairman of the committee—Sir William Houghton. He was known to me in another connection through our common interest in the provision of education in developing countries. One reads in the report that he began his work as chairman ably and conscientiously, and I know from my knowledge of his work that "able" and "conscientious" were adjectives that could always be applied to what he did.

The committee tackled a very complex area of law involving the most initimate of human relationships, the foundation of family life, relations between partners in marriage, relations between parents and their natural children, and—no less important—the equally powerful bonds which can unite parents and children in a family which does not have normal, natural origins.

I urge the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South, to believe that when I say that I am not casting any doubt on the value of the blood tie. What I am saying is that in other circumstances family relationships which do not have a blood tie can be equally strong, and that we should always leave that in mind in considering this subject.

It is an area of human relationships in which there have been many successes as well as the many tragedies which tend to hit the headlines. I am sure that we have in mind the enormous numbers of children who are deprived, and that we should also have in mind the tragedies that we read about, and should therefore deal with this matter with the utmost urgency.

I felt impelled to take part in the debate, because my wife and I are the happy parents—happy adoptive parents—of two vigorously happy boys. It is because we can look back over eight or nine years to periods of great anxiety at the time when we were trying to adopt those two boys, and because we can recall the obstacles and frustrations in the legal and social situation which then faced us, that I feel that this report, because it attempts to meet many of those frustrations, is a highly important social document. We also took great joy in the fact that we persisted, despite those frustrations, and were able to overcome them. But we are conscious that there are many other wishful adoptive parents who are not placed as we were placed and were not able to so persist, as we were able, and perhaps have not had the happy outcome that we have had.

I wish to confine my remarks to certain aspects of the report of which I have had personal experience. I do not claim to cover the whole range of the report's recommendations. I want to identify four of the problems which we met and to ask whether, if the report had existed or if the legal situation eight years ago had been what the committee would wish it to be, our frustrations would have been avoided. I believe that they would.

The four proposals that I have in mind and which I welcome very much are, first the placing upon local authorities of a statutory duty to ensure that there is a comprehensive adoption service throughout their areas and, therefore, throughout the country; secondly, the recommendation, about which the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South had some doubt, that in deciding whether a parent is unreasonably withholding consent to adoption the first consideration should be given to the effect on the long-term welfare of the child. On the third proposal, I believe that the committee has been extremely wise, in a very delicate area, in producing the series of recommendations whereby a mother would transfer her parental rights to an adoption agency and that such transfer, except in exceptional circumstances, would be irrevocable. On the fourth proposal, I very much welcome Recommendation No. 55 that the mother should no longer establish a condition concerning the religion in which the child should be brought up.

When my wife and I decided that we should like to adopt children, we immediately came upon two closely connected snags. The first was that we live in a borough which does not provide adoption services. The second was that the services of most voluntary agencies were not available to us, because almost all of them have religious associations. My wife and I are avowed humanists. We made all the inquiries that we could within our locality, but we found that the combination of these two circumstances—the local authority providing no such service, and the religious difficulty—posed insurmountable barriers in one way or another. It is for this reason that I very much support the committee's recommendations, which would ensure that, through local authorities, a proper service would be made available throughout the country.

Our personal problem was ultimately solved not within our area but because we approached a London borough with a very enlightened and progressive outlook in these matters. Once that borough agreed to help us we found that we had at our disposal the services of very dedicated officials, for whose work we can offer nothing but praise. We would only wish that all prospective adoptive parents and children should have, in all parts of the country, the kind of services which we ultimately found were available for us. However, I believe that it was, perhaps, because of our persistence and our fortunate situation in other ways that we were able to find that service. Many others give up the struggle.

It is the purpose of Chapter 3 of the report that such a more favourable situation should be brought about. I very much hope, therefore, that the Government will approach this problem with a much greater sense of urgency than they appear to be doing, from what we have heard from the Secretary of State today.

I want to deal a little more fully with the question of the religious condition which, under the existing law, the natural mother can stipulate. Naturally, I approach this question with humanist views in mind. This matter is dealt with on page 65 of the report. One can see there an overwhelming case for the committee's recommendations, even if one does not approach the matter from my point of view. If adoption is the complete severence of the legal relationship between parent and child, it is anomalous, as the committee points out, that the natural parent should be allowed to retain control over this one aspect of the child's future. Moreover, as the committee points out, the condition is really unenforceable. It leads to the difficulty that in certain circumstances it means a shortage of adopters, and unfortunate and unnecessary delays can occur. People of all religions and of none can read page 65 of the report with satisfaction. It is an admirable analysis of the situation and a clearly drafted section of the report, with a conclusion which all, I believe, can accept, particularly having in mind the very important last sentence of paragraph 230, which is worth repeating, namely, It would remain open to a mother of a particular religious persuasion to go to a voluntary society which serves those of her faith in the expectation that the child would be adopted by those of similar beliefs. That point should surely meet all doubts in anyone's mind.

Thirdly, I very much welcome the recommendation that when a question arises about a parent withholding consent unreasonably it should be the long-term welfare of the child to which first consideration is given. In the case of one of our boys it was necessary to go to a court to get a judge's ruling about such an unreasonable withholding of consent. For obvious reasons, this was one of the most difficult periods for us. I have tried to be objective in assessing that situation and I strongly believe that the natural parent concerned was being quite wrongly advised. Naturally, the successful outcome of the court hearing was highly satisfactory to us.

My fourth point concerns the present right of a natural mother to change her mind about wanting her child to be adopted after the child has been with the prospective adoptive parents for three months. This possibility, like the court case to which I have referred, was the cause of great anxiety to us. Our situation was far more favourable than that of many other adoptive parents. First, we were confident that our case about the withholding of consent was strong. So it proved to be. Second, there was never really any doubt that the two natural mothers would change their minds. However, the mere possibility that they might change their minds at the last moment, as happens in other cases, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) pointed out, caused us an enormous amount of anxiety.

If, in those favourable circumstances, great anxiety was caused to us, how much greater must be the anxiety of those adoptive parents when there is fluctuation in the attitude of the natural mother and when her decision is in considerable doubt?

The way in which the report approaches the question of the decision of the mother about her wish for the child to be adopted is an extremely human approach, which takes account of all the interests involved. The Committee has done justice to the real wishes and the real interests of the natural parents, the adoptive parents and, above all, of the child.

Because of my personal experience I have selected four matters which are raised in the report. I believe they are issues on which I have some right to judge. As I find the committee's recommendations so correct in meeting these specific difficulties, I am disposed to believe that the rest of the report, on which I am less competent to judge, is of value. That is why I support my right hon. and hon. Friends—and I wish there were more Conservative hon. Members present—who are urging the Government to act quickly.

We entirely agree that the matter is complex. It is a delicate matter but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool has said, these are issues which can and will be debated and considered in Committee. There has been inquiry, there has been evidence and there has been research for many years. Now is the time not to hesitate, not to inquire, not to research further, but to get on with the job. I say that because of the enormous number of children who are suffering as a result of the inadequate legal and social situation.

The Secretary of State for Social Services urged the House—and I am sure he meant it—to give its views on the various recommendations in the report. He said that he wanted to listen to them. I am sure he meant that, and I am sure that he will listen. I not only urge him to listen to the views of the House about the committee's recommendations but to take on board the fact that this is an enormously important matter, on which action should be taken during this Session.

1.13 p.m.

Mr. Peter Archer (Rowley Regis and Tipton)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram), I am not able to endorse everything said by the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell). However, I find myself totally in agreement with his view that it is a sad tribute to the expertise and the meticulous care which emerges in the report that it should have been debated on a Friday by a House which is almost empty. I hope that that does not reflect the importance which the Government attach to the matter.

I echo what has been said by all my hon. Friends—namely, that there is urgency about this. Of course, we accept that we should not legislate without adequate thought. But that is not the danger with which we are confronted, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) pointed out. The essential point which the Government should appreciate is that as each month passes and no legislation appears, relationships are being destroyed and hearts are being broken. The danger is that thought begets thought. Someone puts forward a proposal, the matter is discussed and in the course of discussion further proposals are made and discussed. That is quite proper, but there comes a time when what is required is a decision. I hope that when the Finer Committee reports we shall not be told that we must have further consultation so that that report can be digested before there is legislation.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South will forgive me if I do not take up the matters which he raised. All of us, no doubt, will have particular aspects of the report to draw to the attention of the House. I shall refer to two matters. My qualification for doing so is that I was privileged to play a modest part in the discussions which eventuated in certain recommendations of the committee.

First, I refer to Chapter 7 and what has been described as the tug-of-love situation. We are all familiar with the tragedy which is involved when a child who has been fostered with a family for some years and who regards itself as a member of the family is taken away. The child may be regarded by the parents with parental pride and affection. It may be regarded by the other children as a brother or sister and may be in virtually every sense a member of the family. The only element lacking is that of a blood relationship. If that were present, and someone were to tear the child from the family, like tearing a limb from a living body, we should all be horrified by such a situation. Unhappily those situations occur from time to time.

I fully accept what is said by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser). Fostering is by definition a temporary relationship. It would be helpful if at the beginning of such a relationship that fact were made clear to all concerned. However, sometimes a relationship which begins as a temporary affair continues until it has developed into something entirely different. I understand, too, that the fear of losing parental rights after a given period may prevent parents from agreeing to foster- ing. The fact remains that children are not a species of property. This is not the kind of situation where the manufacturer has an unqualified right to the product.

In Committee on the Children and Young Persons Bill on 8th September 1969, I ventured to move an amendment which I hoped might have dealt with the problem. I proposed that after a child had been placed with a family for five years the local authority might be entitled to assume parental rights under Section 2 of the Children Act 1948. I was grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor). That amendment was not designed in any way to take away the rights of parents.

We all accept that there may be situations where the parents were blameless. They may have been compelled for financial reasons or by housing conditions to allow the situation to develop. It may be the kind of situation where a blameless heart must be broken. All that was being proposed was that somebody should be entitled to consider the whole position and to decide what was best to be done, so that the authorities would not be in a position in which they would be compelled to say, "We have no power even to consider the matter, even to interfere."

We heard the arguments which were subsequently considered by the Houghton Committee. I recognise that the arguments are by no means all one way. But I welcome Recommendations 32 and 36. As I see it, they divide my proposal into two. Recommendation 32 is that after three years in continuous care the local authority shall have power to assume parental rights under Section 2. Recommendation 36 is that where, after a child has been fostered with them for five years, parents apply to adopt, the position shall be frozen until the court has had an opportunity of looking at the situation.

It seems that the committee went further than I dared to go at that time. I regard that as a great victory for all the foster parents—there were many of them—who wrote to me then asking. "When shall we have some redress?" It remains now, I hope, only to implement it.

I was a little concerned when the Secretary of State said earlier that the Government had not made up their minds on this matter. Surely if any situation requires prompt legislation it is this. I hope that, if we are to get the legislation, the Government will take steps to persuade local authorities to use their powers. No one can accuse the children's departments of local authorities of being power-hungry bureaucrats. The danger is usually the reverse. They are reluctant—naturally and properly—to exercise the powers they have.

The other matter to which I want to refer was brought to the notice of the committee by, among others, International Social Service. I was privileged for a short time to be the chairman of that body's adoption committee and I was one of those from International Social Service who gave evidence to the committee. This refers to the situation where, for various reasons, people in one country wish to adopt a child from another country. They may have met the child on a visit to another country. There may be a complete project, such as occurred when children who were orphaned in Vietnam were brought over to be adopted by Europeans. I hope that nothing I shall say will be thought to detract in any way from the admirable nature of that undertaking. In a world where there is so much brutality it is refreshing to hear from time to time that there are so many kind hearts.

In many cases that proposal eventuates in a completely successful relationship; and, where there have been tears, there is joy. The Under-Secretary will be familiar with the book by Miss Lois Raynor on the adoption of non-white children which was partly sponsored by International Social Service. But it is inevitable that where that happens there will be cases where problems arise. After the child is brought from a foreign country—from a different background—the family realises for the first time that there are problems, and sometimes the whole thing breaks down.

We hear so often after every Christmas of animals which have been abandoned because they were given to a family which thought they would like, for instance, a puppy, for all kinds of good reasons, and then discover that puppies do not always behave as they do in pet shop windows. Then the animal is turned out of doors to fend for itself. That is tragic enough for an animal. It is a much greater tragedy when it happens to a child.

It is essential that safeguards exist to ensure that it does not happen more often, and that children are not unsuitably placed. Those safeguards sometimes entail delays. These are sometimes regarded by those most concerned as artificial restrictions and red tape. Sometimes indeed they are handled in that way. My hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South spoke of the heartaches of waiting to know when the authority will decide. One fully appreciates that. The problem is to achieve a balance between the proper safeguards and unnecessary delays.

When someone in this country proposes to adopt a child from abroad, if for any reason the proposal falls through the child will still be protected by provisions existing in this country for the protection of children. Many of us think that these provisions are not adequate. We could debate ways of improving their adequacy. However, that would be another debate.

But where the situation is the converse, where someone from another country wishes to adopt a child from this country, once the child has left the jurisdiction there are no safeguards which can be applied by the authorities in this country. I am not venturing to suggest that the safeguards in this country are necessarily better than they are in other countries. In some cases they are. In some they are not. But it is essential that where the authorities in the United Kingdom allow a child to pass from the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, when it can no longer be protected by them, a heavy responsibility must be placed upon them to ensure that it is passing to a situation where so far as possible it will be adequately protected.

These are matters which the committee dealt with in paragraph 312 and subsequent paragraphs and which have not been mentioned in the debate. I want to draw three matters to the attention of the House. First, applicants from abroad are required by Section 53 of the 1958 Act to have the care and control of the child in this country for a period of six months, where the relationship can be observed, before permission is given to take the child abroad.

I have heard it suggested on occasion that that is too long, that sometimes it renders impossible what might otherwise be a highly desirable adoption. There was a period when I became almost convinced that that was so. The Minister may remember that there was a great deal of controversy about this at one period.

I took the advice of people who are much more experienced in this field than I am. I have reached the conclusion that six months is the minimum safe period and when the committee made no proposal that that period should be reduced, except in one isolated situation, it was right. I think that those of us who at one stage took a different view were wrong. I say this publicly to indicate to some of my friends who were very much involved at that time why now I have changed my mind.

The committee suggests that where distant relatives are involved, that period might be reduced or dispensed with. The provision does not apply to close relatives. That might be a dangerous step, and I should be opposed to it.

Secondly, for a child to be taken out of the jurisdiction requires the making by the courts of a provisional adoption order. Such an order authorises the removal of the child so that it can then be the subject of adoption proceedings, whatever fom they may take, in the proposed country of adoption. International Social Service has been very troubled for some time that the provision for follow up, in case the adoption falls through or in case there is something unsatisfactory about the relationship, should be so few.

The name "provisional adoption order" itself is misleading. It gives the impression that there has been a very careful investigation and that what has been produced is a kind of adoption order. It is no such thing. It is an export licence. International Social Service proposed to the committee that the name should be changed for that reason. In Recommendation 82 the committee suggested that the form of such orders should be altered to make clear what they really are but that the name should not be changed. I wonder whether the Government would like to think about that again, because it could lead to tragedies.

Finally, the Secretary of State indicated this morning that the Government were rather minded to opt for local registration rather than central registration. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood took a different view. I would not seek to detain the House by imposing my view at this stage except in this one field to which I am referring.

Where one is dealing with a society which proposes chiefly to concern itself with international adoptions, the arguments for central registration are very much stronger. Those who sponsored the admirable Vietnam project registered with the Shropshire County Council. I would not say a word against the Shropshire County Council. In fact, it dealt admirably with the unhappy situation which was foisted upon it. But it is not a situation with which a local authority should be confronted.

This is a field where inevitably emotions are very strong, particularly for those who are most involved. It is a fruitful field for heartaches. For that very reason, it is all the more important that people who are sympathetic but qualified should take an unemotional look at every stage. Sometimes as described by my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South, these attentions are resented as bureaucratic interference. They are not always done as tactfully as they might be. We must ensure that the process is governed by adequate rules and adequate safeguards so that the heartbreaks do not come later.

We in the House must ensure, too, as unemotionally as possible, that the safeguards exist. But we also have to ensure that the reaction between those who are personally and emotionally involved, and those who are professionally trained to be unemotional, shall be as clearly understood and as free from friction as possible; because what that friction will be wearing away is human hearts, and the community where they have to live.

1.32 p.m.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

The report is to be welcomed for the depth to which it has gone into many important aspects of child care, fostering and adoption—subjects which have concerned so many of us for so long. When we deliberate on the report, it is important that we remind ourselves that we are talking about a group of children who, by the very virtue of the fact that they are children, cannot speak for themselves. We must speak on their behalf.

It is difficult for adults to put themselves in the place of children without having had some of the experiences to which the report refers—and experiences that hon. Members have mentioned. One of the most informative ways of looking at the problems is to talk to people who themselves have been brought up in care and have been the subjects of fostering, and who have experienced some of the difficulties that we are trying to solve.

Sometimes one gets a different picture. It has generally been said—apart from one hon. Member's contribution—that the interests of the children are paramount, and not those of the natural parents or foster parents. It is also true—and we have to recognise it, however unhappy it may make some of us—that the interests of the child are best served by a continuing relationship both with its natural parents and with its foster parents. It is that aspect about which I wish to talk today.

It has been said that at any given time there are about 90,000 children in the care of local authorities. The point we must underline is that most of these children return to their homes, that they are in the care of the local authorities only temporarily, that their situation is often resolved happily, that no permanent damage is done to them, that there is no permanent separation from their natural home. We are talking about a minority of children, who are subject to all sorts of abuses and difficulties because of the inadequacy of our way of dealing with some of their problems.

It is also important to stress that the children's services generally are impoverished, and that many of the theories that lie behind the children's services have entirely broken down. For instance, a survey would show that a child may have six, seven, or even eight or nine, social workers during the time that he is in care, and yet the social worker is supposed to be the link between the child and the local authority.

We talk of the tremendously damaging experience that children undergo in the tug of love when children are taken from a foster home by their natural parents, with all the difficulties that that brings. It is important to remind ourselves that within residential care, too, such situations may exist when, because of the changes in staff which occur because of the lack of decent accommodation for residential staff in such homes, children in long-term care have a variety of people to look after them. That situation is not studied with the intensity given to that which occurs when a child is in the tug-of-love situation, which we occasionally see highlighted in the newspapers.

Broadly speaking, I accept most of the recommendations in the report on the subject of changing procedures for adoption. Hon. Members have already dealt with the most important. I wish to comment on some aspects of the matter not all of which are mentioned in the report. I do not want the Government to rush into legislation on this subject. Some of these matters demand legislation—an example is "Children Who Wait"—and we have been lax about some of these problems. But in other respects it is right that there should be time for the House and for the relevant organisations to have time to deliberate.

Child care was not within the terms of the report. That was an unfortunate omission. If we are to change the law about the rights of foster parents and local authorities and guardianship, we must consider changes in child care, for what happens in fostering is bound to affect child care. Some people, not all of them social workers, have not given an unqualified welcome to every recommendation. Some people have expressed views which I do not necessarily accept but which have to be considered. They are designed to ensure that what we do does not damage other aspects of child care.

We must remind ourselves of the reason for developing fostering. After much study, it was decided—whether we agree with it now is another matter—that local authority children's homes and the large homes of voluntary organisations were a poor substitute for the home life that a child ought to have. It was concluded that fostering was the closest imitation of a family situation. In many ways, the success of fostering depends on the co-operation of the child's natural parents with its foster parents, and many foster parents fully understand and accept that, so long as the situation is reasonable, a child can learn to accept and to adapt to the situation

But there is an important qualification, and it was mentioned by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. Peter Archer). It is that short-term placements often become long-term placements, that the advice given to a foster parent who is told that a child is being placed with him for a year or two before being returned to the natural mother is often incorrect. When that happens, confusion and distress are caused to the foster parents, whose eyes were open at the time they entered into the situation. The difficulty arises because the situation changes.

It is now suggested that after five years foster parents should have the right to apply for adoption. I have no fundamental objection, but there are aspects of that to be considered. We must ensure that we do nothing to inhibit parents from putting children into foster homes. That might happen if we create the fear—"My child may be taken from me if something goes wrong and I may lose him because of some adoption or guardianship order". I say that only to utter a note of caution, because it is possible that many children now in foster homes and enjoying reasonably stable relationships with foster parents and able to cope with seeing their natural parents from time to time might not have been allowed by their parents to go into foster homes if those parents had thought that that danger existed.

It is true that many parents who put their children into the care of a local authority think that it is only temporary and say that they do not want the child to go into a foster home and have a substitute mother and father—"I am the mother and this is my child". Unhappily, many of those who take that line show by the very language that they use that they regard a child as a piece of property, as an extension of themselves, and they are the very people whose children may be in greatest need of a long-term foster home, because they are often the children who stay in care for many years. But we do not want to inhibit the chance of the child who is likely to stay in care for a prolonged period to go into a foster home where he will get the loving care that he may not receive in a large institution. That is why we have been developing the concept of foster homes.

It was for that reason that we developed the concept of the foster home. The question is often posed—is fostering successful? Some say it is, others disagree. It depends upon what is meant by "successful" and what the circumstances are. We often ask foster parents to do impossible things. It is possible to open the eyes of a foster parent and to point out that it is a temporary arrangement, but the desire that springs from many foster parents to have the right to adopt the child in their care comes not so much from the desire to own a child as from the instability of the nature of fostering which can often exist. It is an insecurity in which foster parents find themselves in relation to the natural parents in a situation which they could not have understood at the time of the placement because that situation did not then exist.

Although the five-year suggestion has some validity, it will be effective in only a few cases because large numbers of children today are already in the care of the local authority and will not be affected by the five-year solution. We must not blind ourselves to the fact that, whatever we do by way of guardianship orders, rights and powers, foster parents having the right after five years to apply for adoption without consent, that will not deal with many of the unfortunate situations in child care today. We have heard of the number of children who have been through such situations and end up in need of special treatment. I am often amazed, not by the number of children in care who end up in borstals but by the number who manage to avoid them and to lead a reasonably stable life despite the instability of their early background.

One recommendation which interests me very much is that after a child has been in care or in a foster home for a year it shall not be removed without 28 days' notice. This is far too short a period. Does it depend upon whether the child has been regularly visited by the parents? Many children are not so visited. Does a stable continuance of contact with the child mean simply a statutory visit? What about the visit someone may make because he feels a little guilty or because he wants to avoid a permanent relationship developing between foster parent and child? If a child has been in care with a foster parent for a year, then, assuming that the natural parent has been lax, there should be a much longer period than 28 days depending on the age of the child.

Mr. Abse

May I refer to the period of three years in which parental rights can be assumed? We have within the report specifically indicated that the sort of intermittent visit or taking away which my hon. Friend has mentioned certainly should not mean that the three years adds up cumulatively. It would not operate in that case. The committee argued whether 28 days was sufficient on the other point.

Miss Lestor

I will not pursue that because the point is taken and no doubt if this comes to any kind of legislation we shall be able to discuss it then. If there is a fault in the report it is not with the people who sat on the committee. It arises because the committee did not look at much of what it is saying in the whole context of child care. That is my criticism, as someone interested in this subject at many levels. Quite rightly there are recommendations about guardianship and the right to adopt after a certain period of time.

Much of the damage that is done to children in care is caused when they are young. We see this damage reaching fruition later. Many of the children may be in one of our smaller homes which are more desirable than the larger homes. There are no rights and powers over that child by the local authority. He can be taken away for a day, three days, a weekend or a week at hardly any notice at all, and sometimes at no notice whatever, by the mother or father who wishes to exercise his or her rights as a parent.

The child can be subjected to all sorts of insecurities. The foster parent or the person in charge of the child is always at the back of his mind, with whatever degree of permanence, affection or stability is sought to be brought into the relationship. At the same time there is the knowledge that at any moment someone can walk in and say, "I am the mother, I want access to my child." Many people will say that the local authority has the right to deal with it and can do many things. Unfortunately, on the basis of many of the arguments put forward by the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell), local authorities are often reluctant to intervene in such situations because there is quite often this written and spoken bias in the courts in favour of the natural mother.

Coupled with that, there is the view, right or wrong,—wrong on many occasions—that the natural mother should at all costs, and under whatever circumstances, be encouraged to maintain contact with her child. I say quite seriously, as would anyone concerned with this, that if we are to bring into some of these fostering situations a degree of stability for the child, we must investigate this point very carefully. I do not want to stop a mother or father visiting the child but there has to be a degree of control so that they do not turn up, as will happen this year, on Christmas Eve, without any warning saying, "I want my child" or, conversely, do not turn up on Christmas Eve when they have promised to do so. The degree of upset and disturbance caused to the child is unbelievable.

This is one of the areas of child care which somehow or other has been ignored. We are all moved by the tug-of-war child. Often when I have taken the trouble to check some of these cases there is another side to the story, not so clearly demonstrated by sentiment and, often, by an ill-informed Press. However, some cases are genuine and I would not wish to restrict the genuine cases. Sometimes authorities have been lax in not assuming rights and powers earlier.

I plead with the right hon. Gentleman, when he is considering some of the reasonable and forthright suggestions in the report to try to alleviate tug-of-war situations and to look at what is happening in child care in relation to young children when we are all biased towards the rights of the natural mother. We argue that it is in the interests of the child to know its natural mother, to grow up knowing its natural parents and to try to live with that situation. I am not sure what is the evidence for that approach. It can work when the visiting is done frequently and when the natural parents are prepared to co-operate with the foster parents. Unfortunately there are often difficulties. Sometimes neither side is prepared to co-operate. It is not possible to understand the emotions of a foster parent until one has personal experience. If a foster parent believes that the visits are damaging to the child and the situation the foster parent is trying to develop, it is difficult to cooperate with the parent who says, "I intend to have my kid for the weekend because it is my kid. I may not see him for six or eight months but I intend to exercise my rights." Anyone who has had the experience of taking a child to a parent when the child does not want to go will know what damage that can do. This is as central to many of the problems in child care as other matters that have been mentioned.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) underlined the fact that the cycle of deprivation and instability is repeated again and again. Children may be taken into care because they are at risk and therefore we want to minimise the risk, but often they are at risk when they are in care. It may be a different risk, but it is still a risk. Anything which can be done to stabilise the situation and to ensure that the children's interests are given paramount consideration when it comes to adoption or guardianship will be to the good.

I strongly support the misgivings which have been expressed about changing the relationships of children in a fostering situation to relationships in an adoptive situation. Much depends on the child's age. Children can be asked what they think. If a child has been in care for five years, it may well be about nine years of age, because often children go from residential nurseries to foster homes. There are great difficulties for foster parents which I am sure the committee will have considered. If a person tells a child, "I am only your foster mother; this is only a temporary arrangement", and then a few years later she says, "I am going to adopt you, and all I told you before will be changed", difficulties can be created. The case work in such situations is vital.

I endorse what has been said by Robert Holman and in the report about children who wait. They are the most tragic children we have ever had in our community. It is to the shame of all of us that we have not taken up their cause before now. Some of the children who wait have been in care all their lives and have been virtually abandoned. There may be two, three or four children in a family and, because the number of large children's homes has been reduced, they may be split up, with one child going to a foster parent, another going to a home and the other going to a relative. They may all be children who wait. There may be difficulties about maintaining family links and finding people who are prepared, to take all the children. One must ask whether it is right to disrupt the relationship which a child may have with somebody else. Some of the children who wait are in circumstances which are exceedingly difficult to tackle.

Unfortunately, some children have waited many years because originally it was thought that they would ultimately return home to their natural parents. Legislation is needed very quickly to deal with some of these tragic children who will never know what it is to live in a family situation because we have waited too long and have given too much credence to the wishes of natural parents when those wishes are usually negative. The parents do not want to know their children, but they will not sign them over to somebody who is prepared to give them the love and care which they need.

In these debates we are also concerned with children of inadequate people, children who are the products of parents who have had disturbed and unfortunate lives. But there is another group of children who are causing increasing concern to society, and I hope that their situation will be considered. I refer to the children of divorced parents. Recommendations are made through the courts about access and custody, but there is no way of ensuring that they are upheld unless the parents or someone else go to the court and subject the child to all sorts of humiliating publicity in order to gain access or custody.

I know that there is legal redress in such a situation, but I ask those who are concerned with the law to bear in mind that much of the difficulty stemming from the problems of access to children by divorced parents could be alleviated if a social worker was assigned to ensure that what has been decided by the court is beneficial to the child, that the child wants it and that its interests are being met. Some of these children are subject to the same risks as many of the other children about whom we are talking.

I am glad that practically everyone who has spoken has highlighted the need to concern ourselves with the wishes, rights and needs of the child and not necessarily with the wishes and rights and even needs of foster parents or natural parents. It is easy to say that, but often people take the view that it is in the interests of the child that it should be with its natural parent with little evidence to show that that is the right way for the child to grow to manhood or womanhood. We must consider the interests of the child and disregard the many pressures put on us by social workers, for whom generally I have a great respect, and by other people.

The central theme of any legislation which may result from the report we are debating should be a reminder that children are not pieces of furniture or brown paper parcels to be put in a room or home and removed at the whim of a parent, because the fact that a child is in that situation often means that the person who wishes to remove it is an inadequate person and is only visiting his or inadequacies on the future of the child.

1.57 p.m.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

; I do not wish to take up the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) on fostering, because there are other aspects of the matter about which I wish to speak, but I hope that the Secretary of State will pay careful attention to her remarks because, as a former schoolmaster, I agree with what she said about many aspects of the problems of fostering.

I share my hon. Friends' approval of the report. It is a great pity that there is no firm expectation of legislation this Session, because the committee was appointed on 21st July 1969 and submitted its report to the Minister on 24th July 1972. Legislation is vitally needed, and I hope that it will be introduced before long.

One aspect of the report which I view with great interest is the need to improve the system of voluntary societies by adopting a system of supervision and registration. The Minister seems to question whether it is right to have central registration. I am not passionately concerned either way. My concern is that the system of adoption agencies shall be very good and that the condition of all agencies shall be brought to the condition of the very best.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Oram), I take part in this debate as a consumer rather than as a producer, since my wife and I have adopted a child. Our experience in the procedures involved encouraged me to speak. We found ourselves childless and decided to apply to local societies to adopt a child. We applied to one society and were invited to an interview. We had given a great deal of thought to the matter—we had not embarked on it lightly—and we expected to go through exhaustive procedures.

We arrived for the interview at the adoption society's office a few minutes before the time of the appointment. We were shown into a little room and there we waited for an hour and a half. We were eventually interviewed by a lady who, I presume, had no professional qualifications or experience other than decent feelings and a good heart. She was concerned mainly with how I had enjoyed my national service in the Royal Air Force, which had commenced 20 years earlier, and my income. She thought that it was essential that the child we adopted should come from exactly the same income background as my wife and I. I told her that I was head of a department in a school and did not regard myself as being particularly affluent. It seemed that my income was higher than the average in the region and it would therefore be difficult for the society to provide me with a child for adoption.

As a schoolmaster, I have become convinced that environment is more important than is heredity and as the interview proceeded my egalitarian prnciples led me into feeling annoyed; but I had regard to my wife's feelings and counted up to 10 on many occasions so that our chances of adopting a child would not be destroyed.

A few days later another lady came to my home. She, also, believed that economic matching was essential. Although I was not abusive, I pointed out that so long as the child allocated to my home was not already a member of the Conservative Party at the age of five or six weeks I would raise no objection. I told the lady that, although I was a white-collar worker, my father had been down the pits for 50 years, so that the economic background of the child did not matter very much. A few days later we received a letter from the society telling us that a child could not be allocated to us. We were extremely disappointed.

We applied to another voluntary adoption society—the Doncaster and District Adoption Society—which is a model of its kind. The interview we attended was, as it should be, exhaustive. The inquiries which the society made, the references it followed up, the medical inquiries, and so on, were all carried out with tremendous diligence. I am not suggesting that only professionally qualified social workers should undertake this work. There is scope for middle class "do-gooders", but they should be properly supervised by experienced and qualified people, as occurred in the society from which we eventually obtained our child.

When our little boy arrived I viewed him with a certain amount of misgiving, because it had been 15 years since my previous experience with a small baby. I am not particularly handy when it comes to changing nappies. Within a short time we had become extremely attached to the child, and the period of waiting until we could get the adoption order was one of increasing anxiety, particularly for my wife. We were fortunate in having to wait only a week longer than the legal minimum period.

One of my hon. Friends who wanted to take part in the debate asked me to mention his experience if he was unable to be here. He and his wife were waiting for the court hearing on the adoption order for one of their two adopted children when the mother disappeared. Weeks and weeks elapsed while the authorities tried to trace her. The burden of anxiety upon the family was acute during this time. That experience, which is not unusual, justifies the recommendation in the report that the arrangements for relinquishment should be much less painful and protracted. During the next few months probably hundreds of people will be awaiting adoption orders. They will suffer anxiety and sometimes profound disappointment. The Minister, therefore, should take a much more urgent view of the introduction of the necessary legislation.

The experience which my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough has had in relation to fostering is much more detailed and deep than mine. But it seems to me that a person who has fostered a child whose parents show no interest in it should be able to go ahead and complete adoption arrangements so that the child, who may be sharing a home with the foster parent's own children, shall be able to enjoy the same legal rights—and perhaps the same share in the estate of a grandparent who has treated all the children equally—as the natural children of the foster parents. The present arrangements are inadequate and often unhappy. The 1958 legislation is out of date and legislation to meet current needs should be introduced.

We cannot legislate for one of the more serious needs, which is that the number of children available for adoption is inadequate. That would be a good thing if it meant that all children are in natural homes where they are desired, but that is not so. Children who a few years ago would have been placed for adoption are no longer offered. That is partly because—desirably—the stigma of illegitimacy has been removed, and partly because the economic arrangements that society makes for the deprived and unfortunate have improved. The reason may also partly lie in the fact that occasionally a pop star or person involved in the fringes of entertainment decides as part of his or her fashionable image to have a child. A young girl who would be well advised to hand over her child may decide to keep it because she desires to emulate the activities of a fashionable pop hero. We should so make our arrangements that children will be properly cared for. It would sometimes be far better for a child to be adopted than to remain with its mother and ruin the life of a girl perhaps in her early teens.

Although we cannot legislate to compel people to surrender their children, we should use whatever honourable and wholesome means we can to persuade certain people to allow their children to go into families which would be happy to adopt them. The Home Office and the Department of Education and Science well know that a child in an adoptive home is often likely to perform better and be healthier and happier than if it stayed with its natural parents. I hope that the Secretary of State will do all he can to bring in legislation quickly and to ensure that in the accepted system persuasion to encourage adoption is relevant.

2.8 p.m.

Mr. Philip Whitehead (Derby, North)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy), I intervene on a personal note. My hon. Friend spoke from the experience of the adopter. I am, in a literal sense, a child of the 1926 Act, in that I was adopted in circumstances which are almost a recipe for failure according to the Houghton Report. The adoption was a third-party adoption with private placement to people who would be thought manifestly too old—almost 50—with no counselling. Thereafter there was little or no attempt to explain my situation to me until I was well past adolescence. I leave to other hon. Members to judge whether in the circumstances that adoption was a success. I say this by way of explanation of my interest in some of the recommendations in the Houghton Report which have not so far been dealt with in this debate.

I congratulate the members of the Houghton Committee—and in particular the two hon. Members of this House who were members of it, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers)—on the comprehensive nature of the report. I wish also to congratulate the Secretary of State for Social Services on his lucid summary of the report and his sympathetic approach to its recommendations in his speech today.

I wish I could also congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on an announcement of imminent legislation. In a situation where the Government of the day were alerted six years ago—largely due to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool—to the need for a reform of the law of adoption, it is a little unfortunate that the Government have not yet made up their mind on what to do. This means that, unless some hon. Member brings in a private Member's bill to concentrate the Governmental mind, nothing will happen for the rest of this Parliament. In view of the complexity of the report's recommendations—and there are 92 of them—cannot the Government be prevailed upon to change their mind and to give us some timetable of the legislation to implement the body of these proposals? I sincerely hope they will do so.

I want to see enshrined in law the basic principle agreed by every hon. Member who has so far taken part in this debate, with one exception—that the welfare of the child should be pre-eminent. The hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) quibbled at the use of the word "paramount", so let us at least say "preeminent". We are trying to keep the welfare of the child on a par with the welfare of the natural adoptive parents and of society as a whole.

What rights had the unfortunate girl whose case is now subject to a public inquiry? She was taken hack partly because those responsible thought that the foster parents were showing an overly possessive love for the child. It seems to me that when we look at that regrettable case a love for a child which may be shown by foster parents—a love which in some circumstances may be said to be too close—may be a necessary factor which we shall have to accept within the fostering procedure.

The welfare of the child must be properly considered also in terms of protection from the delusions and sometimes the fantasies of all the other parties in the case. I refer to the delusions and fantasies of the natural mother who at first says that she will visit the child once a year, and does not turn up on Chirstmas Eve, or the delusions and fantasies of those within modern society who believe that it is a form of therapy and conspicuous martyrdom to keep a child with them. Equally a child should be protected from the delusions of some of those who wish to become adoptive parents. Therefore it is necessary that the fullest counselling services within the best possible national adoption service should be introduced without delay.

I wish to make three short points. First I wish to support emphatically what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) about fostering. I, too, believe that the 28-day limit after one year is not long enough. I also believe that after five years the foster parents should be able to apply for either guardianship or adoption of the child in care. Tragic cases have come to my notice of mothers who, having left a child in the care of a local authority, have come back, without a word, seeking to regain the possession of their child, who might then be at the age of 10 or 11, having been left by the mother at the age of two or three. The local authority which has been responsible for that child and the foster parents who may have looked after the child for six or seven years are powerless to do anything about that situation. They have to yield to the whim of the natural parent who returns after a long period.

We should look much more closely at the needs of the children. The care of these children should be seen in terms of a more satisfactory relationship, especially where a placement has become long term. Very often the short-term arrangement becomes a long-term one. The only punctuation of the long-term situation comes from irregular and increasingly long-spaced-out protestations by the mother that she wishes to have the child back.

I should like to deal with two matters which have not so far been discussed in this debate. These are contained in some controversial recommendations by the committee. First there is the question of the ending of third party placements, a subject dealt with in Recommendations 13 to 16. The Houghton Committee made a strong case for the ending of the present system. We have learned from recent figures that 1,500 children a year are being placed independently or via third-party arrangements.

I have some reservation about the recommendation that it should be a criminal offence to try to bring about this kind of placement. The committee expressed its concern on this matter and said that the adoption law must give an assurance about adequate safeguards for the welfare of the child. It suggested in a working paper and in its final recommendation that independent placements with close relatives should no longer be allowed. There has been a division of opinion in the evidence given to the committee on this point and also among those who have discussed the recommendations.

It is a matter of some concern that many of these arrangements have been made because of financial considerations or because of other factors. We should not forget the desperation of some people who, because of geographical, social or economic limitations, have restrictions placed upon them as potential adopters. These restrictions may be over-prohibitive. That is why there is considerable pressure to have a comprehensive service covering this sort of case.

I was concerned to see that 31 per cent. of third-party placements were made by doctors or matrons in nursing homes where the children were born. I am sure that many acted in the best interests of the children and believed that what they did was best for the children concerned at the time. But many hon. Members can give chapter and verse about cases in their constituencies involving young women who have come to London to obtain a consultation about where to obtain an abortion. They have been told that if they go to a particular nursing home all expenses will be paid, they will have the child while under anaesthetic and they never need see that child again. Eventually a few papers will be provided for them to sign at a decent interval after the birth. That is sometimes referred to as baby farming. This is one reason why we are right to approach with maximum suspicion third-party placements, although many of these cases have turned out well.

I draw attention to the reservations expressed by Miss Margaret Kornitzer in the foreword to the latest edition of her book on adoption. She says: Research has not shown that on balance adoptions through third parties are worse than agency adoptions. But there have been many very bad third-party adoptions. Professional case workers want to be in a position to exert tighter control over all placings of children for adoption and to be able to veto or prevent any adoption that they did not arrange themselves. She comments on the committee's recommendation: Personally I think that this is a dangerous recommendation and would rather see third- party placings made far more difficult than to see them absolutely forbidden.

Mr. Abse

From the facts of that research I think that my hon. Friend will find it somewhat unconvincing. The sample was small, the range was very small, and the circumstances became known to the committee. As a result we were not persuaded by that evidence. My hon. Friend may also be interested to know that the British Medical Association was well aware of the background and recommended strongly along the lines that the committee itself finally decided.

Mr. Whitehead

I accept that, and my hon. Friend will find that ultimately I shall come down in favour of the same lines.

It is only fair to say that there are two viewpoints about the wisdom of ending all third-party placements in such a prohibitive manner. As for the smallness of the sample, it is a problem that we all face when we look at adoption case histories. Almost all the samples prayed in aid are themselves very small and the research is totally inadequate. I incline to the view at the end of the day that this recommendation is correct, though I acknowledge that my own bias is the other way and that I am struggling to agree with the committee.

The recommendation is correct, however, only in the context of the introduction of a fully comprehensive service. Until we have that, with adequate counselling and an end to the situation in which many people feel that they cannot adopt a child in the normal way because the adoption societies will not look at them because facilities in their areas are inadequate, there will be a human need for third-party adoption.

Some of the provisions adopted by adoption societies are extremely curious, to say the least. For example, some of them require a virtual guarantee of sterility from adoptive parents when in many cases a couple who are childless find that they can conceive once they have adopted and begun to bring up the child, since that relaxes many of their own tensions and the tensions within the marriage.

I want to consider what the adoptive child should be told and when. I was sorry that the Secretary of State did not find time to discuss Recommendations 74–78 dealing with the point at which the adopted child could have access to some part of the records of his case. The committee recommends that there should be access to records at the age of 18 for Scotland, where the age is now 17, as well as for England and Wales.

My own view is that in adopting that recommendation we enter a very difficult area. We enter a period where the adopted child, naturally curious and wishing to know something of the facts of his origin, to some degree in the hands of whatever instruction and counselling he has received and whatever conversations he has had with his adoptive parents, will be able to get access at the age of 18 to his birth certificate, but will have to apply to the court if he wishes to see the record of the proceedings in his case.

My own experience of discovering and meeting my natural mother after many years was difficult. It left me in a situation of greater mental strain and tension than any other in my life so far. It is not something which can be undertaken lightly and which an immediately post-adolescent of 18 can do. On the other hand, I come down finally to feeling that the committee is right to recommend that access should be provided at the age of 18. Many people wish to marry and to begin families of their own at that age. If we set the age limit at 21 or 25 at which an adopted child might know the facts of his case, this might well be long after many people were past their point of maximum curiosity, in that they wished to start families of their own at an earlier age and wished to know more about their own heredity.

I do not agree with those who suggest that if more facts are needed than the simple one of a birth certificate, the adopted child should have to make application to a court. With thorough counselling throughout provided as of right, at the point where the birth certificate is given over there is no need to have recourse to the courts. In this connection I quote the memorandum sent yesterday to hon. Members by the Association of British Adoption Agencies. Speaking in favour of Recommendations 74–78 it says: Many members of the association believe that more thought will have to be given to the way in which information from court records of adoption proceedings is to be made available to the adopted person and they urge that no information should be given without an accompanying counselling service. I am sure that we all agree that a counselling service is fundamental for the average child during this difficult period where if matters go wrong the trauma involved may undo much of the good done over many years by the adoptive relationship.

We have come a very long way in a comparatively short time through various Acts of Parliament in this century. We have come even further from the foundlings of the last century and from Coram Fields. But we still have a long way to go. We have in our minds the death of the unfortunate Maria Colwell whose shadow falls across our path, and other cases less publicised and less tragic in their outcome. As long as we have children in institutional care who could be adopted and know the love of a family if the law were altered, that is a reproach to our society. Every parentless child has the right to hear someone say, as Sir Thomas More said to his adopted daughter, Margaret Gigs, I number you as one of my own.

2.29 p.m.

Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)

I, too, lend my support to the work of the committee and to the way in which the Secretary of State described its report. There is no doubt that these very sensitive matters have been dealt with meticulously and lucidly. If I express disappointment at some of its recommendations, that is hardly surprising when one considers that there are 92 of them.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) regrets that he was unable to remain for the rest of the debate since his presence was required in his constituency. But we were both a little disappointed that less than adequate consideration was given in the report to the real problems of handicapped and coloured children. Reference is made to both in paragraphs 22 and 23. But in expressing my disappointment I simply reinforce what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser). Clearly it is in this sphere that the greatest problems arise. I hope that more research will be done to find an effective remedy to the problems referred to in those two paragraphs

A number of hon. Members have related extremely valuable personal experiences. In many ways we have had a most moving debate, because it has been coloured in a way that simply dealing with the report and the available statistics would be incapable of doing. I, too, should like to lend my experiences, though in a less personal way, in making observations at random about some of the paragraphs in the report. I do so as a lawyer who, over the years, has inevitably dealt with a number of adoption cases and a somewhat larger number of cases involving some of the problems referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor)

I should like to correct one point brought out by my hon. Friend, who is not present. I think that she was wrong about publicity being afforded to cases involving the children of divorced parents. That is not done. If any such publicity were afforded—my hon. Friend tells me that she has some evidence of it—it would be in conflict with the law. Indeed, it is a matter about which the courts take a strong, meticulous view.

I do not go along entirely with my hon. Friend in her belief that the children of divorced parents should necessarily have a social worker attached to them. That would be placing much too heavy a burden upon the already depleted resources that are available. I wish that it were possible, because there is no doubt about the very real problems in this area. There is a great deal of conflict between warring parents which inevitably creates difficulties for the children, but at the moment my hon. Friend's proposition is impracticable.

In dealing with some of these points at random I should like to start with the adoption of a child by a parent and a step-parent. There are many instances of children living with a parent and a step-parent. That applies to both legitimate and illegitimate children. In most cases adoption necessarily means the severance of the natural child's links with one of the parents. Adoption societies and local authorities regard such severance as a primary consideration although there is no mandatory requirement in the Adoption Act 1958 that that should be so. However, I believe that there is a minority of cases where there should not be a complete breakdown between the child and the natural parents in an adoptive situation. It is highly desirable in a number of such cases that Recommendation No. 20 should be applied, namely that where a relative (including a step-parent applying jointly with his spouse) applies to adopt a child, the law should require the court first to consider whether guardianship would be more appropriate in all the circumstances of the case, first consideration being given to the long-term welfare of the child. Many advantages are to be gleaned from that situation. The first is that in guardianship cases enforceable conditions can be laid down as distinct from most cases involving adoption. In recent years in a small number of adoption cases the High Court in particular has laid down conditions relating to access to a child by the natural parents and to religious upbringing. That is dealt with separately in the report. These are but two of the conditions that have been imposed.

In an adoptive situation there is real difficulty in enforcing such conditions. Indeed, quite recently I was involved in a case where these difficulties were illustrated, and judgments in a number of cases were reviewed. A great advantage of a guardian position is that conditions can be laid down which are directly enforceable because a guardianship order, unlike an adoption order, is not irrevocable. It is constantly subject to review and control by the court, and that is important. It also enables the natural links between a child and its parents to be maintained.

The report rightly points out that in a guardianship situation the natural parents are still parents in law although their parental rights are suspended. This has particular importance to access. Naturally, a situation where the parents are at loggerheads creates difficulties, particularly when considering adoption. That is why I welcome the possibility that the courts will be able to exercise greater control over such a situation.

I want to make only one comment about foster children. This point was brought to my notice quite dramatically in a recent case in my constituency. A family had fostered two children—one legitimate and the other illegitimate. Unhappily, one child was fatally injured in an accident. When criticisms are voiced about foster parents, I think of this family for whom the loss of this child meant as much anguish as to any natural parents. When the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) made certain reflections on foster parents—although he subsequently qualified them—that family instantly sprang to mind. I am sure that there are thousands of families like that.

My next point specifically relates to what the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South said about Recommendation No. 51. I intervened in his speech because I believed then, and I believe now, that he misinterpreted that recommendation. The hon. and learned Gentleman talked about the welfare of the child being of paramount consideration. That is not what the recommendation proposed. Indeed, in paragraph 217 and preceding paragraphs the committee was at pains to point out why it did not make that proposal. I think that the committee was absolutely right. The welfare of the child is, of course, of considerable importance, but it is not the sole consideration that a court must apply. It would be quite wrong for the court to give too much emphasis to wealth and status, which is another point to which one of my hon. Friends alluded with great force.

I turn next to the court itself. During the Secretary of State's speech I expressed my reservation about adoption being dealt with in the magistrates' court. Indeed, I have great reservations about any issues affecting children being dealt with in the magistrates' court. I do not mean by that that I criticise the magistrates for the way in which they undertake that part of their jurisdiction, but I do not believe that lay magistrates are given anything like sufficient training in this respect. It certainly does not begin to compare with the training which they receive in dealing with the sentencing of offenders, and so on.

My criticism is based not on that ground but on the ground that it is altogether the wrong place in which to deal with cases involving this degree of sensitivity. It is recommended that these cases should be dealt with by a domestic branch of the magistrates' courts rather than by the branch that deals with their criminal jurisdiction. Nevertheless, one presumes that these courts will continue to be staffed by uniformed police officers or, if not, by people whose identity is readily revealed, so that everybody knows who they are. That is not a criticism of the police officers who are involved in the staffing of the courts, but their presence creates the wrong atmosphere, in which matters affecting children—it has nothing to do with the criminal law—are dealt with.

The waiting areas available in courts are grotesquely indequate for dealing with this form of domestic jurisdiction. That criticism applies to cases involving husbands and wives as well as to those affecting children. People are entitled to a degree of privacy, and one of the advantages of instituting adoption proceedings in the county courts is that that degree of privacy is always available and the adopting parents, when they are seen, meet the county court judge in his chambers in a completely informal atmosphere which is not to be found in the juvenile or magistrates' courts.

I welcome, too, the idea of family courts. It is clear, though, that they will not be available in the current Session of Parliament, but they would be the best possible venue for dealing with adoption cases.

I warmly welcome Recommendation No. 69, which deals with the need to avoid delay in adoption proceedings. Delay can create the most appalling problems for the applicants for adoption. One reason for delay is that this form of proceeding is often complex. Affidavits have to be sworn, and it sometimes takes time to get the witnesses available for the swearing of them. I think that in this form of proceeding it should be possible to abbreviate all the procedures which have to be undertaken, and that the court ought itself to ensure that the cases are brought on rapidly.

That may throw an additional burden on the courts—one recognises that—but this is a totally exceptional branch of litigation and it is unfair that, because a court happens to be fairly busy, one party is able to delay proceedings to his—or her—advantage by prolonging the hearing and ultimately presenting the court with the argument that the child has been with him for a considerable time and suggesting that it would be wrong to alter the status quo. That often happens in hotly contested cases, and I hope that some means will be found to enable the court to take an active interest in the progress that a case is able to make.

That argument applies also—and this is another point dealt with in the report—to delay occasioned by appeals. It is particularly gratifying to note that the committee pointed out that this was another area in which litigation should be expedited. The committee also suggested that emergency applications for legal aid should be presented and that emergency certificates should be made more readily available by the Law Society in dealing with ordinary adoption applications.

My last point relates to the use of experts. I warmly support the recommendations in this connection. The lower courts do not have power to order that experts should be available to investigate the position affecting the child in a case. Quite rightly, the report says that it is undesirable that a child should be scrutinised by too many experts, but in too many cases hardly any expert opinion is available. That is particularly so when an adoption is contested in the county court.

I can see no reason why a court cannot of its own volition call upon an independent expert—at the cost to the State if necessary, because often the cost falls on the losing party, and in this area of litigation we should not think of "winning" and "losing" parties—to give evidence in the case. It would be excellent if a court could itself decide that it wanted to call in experts, and if the cost of so doing was borne by the taxpayer.

Having made those few criticisms, I conclude as I began, by congratulating all those who have been responsible for the recommendations, most of which I am sure the House fully supports. I deeply regret—and here I join my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood—that the Government are prepared to allow these recommendations to drift on unimplemented. I disagree with those who criticise my hon. Friend for saying that this is scandalous. I am not sure that that was his word, but it is right to say that this is scandalous because these are matters of the greatest importance which affect many children.

Implementing these recommendations would not excite a great deal of controversy in the House. I am sure that we all work together to ensure that legislation along these lines was put on the statute book with the minimum delay. It is particularly unfortunate that the Government have chosen merely to allow us to have a debate, and there the matter will remain for a year or two.

2.48 p.m.

Mr. Thomas Cox (Wandsworth. Central)

I take part in the debate against the background of having been the chairman of the children's committee of the London Borough of Hammersmith for many years. I can recall during that time hearing many of the points that have been made today.

Adoption has changed considerably in recent years, in the sense that today many women, especially those who are not married, who find that they are to have a child, are determined to bring up that child themselves rather than place it for adoption. I warmly welcome that, just as I do the change in attitude to that situation. Only a few years ago it was thought disgraceful that an unmarried woman could be allowed to bring up her child. If she is prepared to do so, she should be encouraged in what she wishes to do.

I am sure we all agree that any unmarried woman who is determined to bring up her child herself will often find it a difficult task. She will have to work and to find somewhere to live. That often presents great difficulties. She has to leave home early in the morning, and she often has to live in unsuitable accommodation for which she pays a high rent. Quite often, that leads to the child being put in care while the mother is at work.

I am sure that there is a great deal of evidence of abuse in child minding. Anyone who wishes to mind children must be licensed by a local authority, but abuses still take place. Women will go to these unlicensed child minders because local authorities are over-burdened with demands for provision for children under school age. Conditions are often deplorable in some of these premises and charges are exorbitant. This is all part of the whole spectrum of general child care. I hope that the Government will give attention to it.

Children can be fostered for a few days, or months, or for very long terms. This is unavoidable sometimes, due to the illness of a parent, or the absence of a parent abroad. The deplorable housing conditions in some big cities result in the break up of a family and in children having to go into care. I do not criticise parents whose children are in care or being fostered, provided that they maintain contact with the children. One hopes that they will make personal visits, to take the child out and see that it is still part of the family unit, although they are separated. If that is not possible, there should at least be a good deal of correspondence. In far too many cases, many of which I have had to deal with as chairman of the children's committee, there is total neglect by a parent, with no attempt to visit or communicate with the child.

The child is often, fortunately, placed with people who are willing to bring it up as their own. Out of the blue the mother can appear to change her mind. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser) mentioned the same problem with regard to adoption. In fostering cases, a parent who has made no attempt to keep in touch with the child may demand its return.

I know of one pitiful case in which a child had been brought up for seven years, from the age of 12 months, by foster parents, who became the only parents the child knew. Its mother, it appeared from the records that the committee saw, had lived with a succession of men. She appeared one day to demand the return of her child. She had a legal right and the child was handed over. This so upset the foster parents that they left this country for Canada. Within nine months, that child was back in the care of the local authority. If there had been some control over the means by which the mother could seek the return of the child, that child might to this day have been with its foster parents, who regarded themselves as its parents, and they would never have left the country.

I therefore welcome the proposals in the report with regard to procedures. I believe that, as far as humanly possible, the relation between child and parent should be maintained. But there are limits. I take the view that if a mother wishes to keep in touch with her child, when her circumstances improve the child should be returned. If, on the other hand, there has been no contact, I should want the closest scrutiny of any provision for the child to be returned.

The ultimate concern of this House should be the future of a child. The cost of keeping a child in care is about £25 a week. A revision of fostering allowances by local authorities is long overdue. No foster parent will look after a child with the idea of making a profit. Many of them make financial sacrifices. But there are limits to the sacrifices that they should have to make. I do not argue totally from the financial aspect, but we cannot ignore it. The facilities of a home for children in care, which cost £25 a week, cannot measure up to the affection that a child can get in a family unit, perhaps living with other boys and girls of its own age and feeling part of the family. An increase in allowances would help in this matter.

I welcome the report very much. Like other hon. Members, I hope that its recommendations will soon become law, because many of them are long overdue.

2.57 p.m.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (The Hartlepools)

My hon. Friend the Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Thomas Cox) ended on the note which taxes all of us: the question when we shall have the legislation.

Hon. Members representing parts of the country in the Northern Region have had addressed to them the concern of the chairman of the North-Eastern Regional Standing Conference on Adoption and of the Durham Diocesan Adoption Committee. The chairman of the standing conference has an exceedingly good reputation in these matters and perhaps the Secretary of State will note his observation that attention has been drawn to this debate. The chairman states: This has taken most people by surprise, but it is possible that the inquiry in Brighton on the Colwell case, set up by Sir Keith himself, may have created pressure to examine the whole child care structure. I hope that that is not the reason. I hope that the Secretary of State has not calculated the need to have this debate today for that reason, serious though it may be. On the other hand, the chairman of the standing conference points out that adoption responsibilities have been transferred recently from the Home Office to the Secretary of State's Department. I should like to believe that it is for that reason that the right hon. Gentleman has taken an early interest in this report, and in order to have the thoughts of the House, which may aid him in bringing forward legislation at an early date. If that is the reason for the debate, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will indicate that the consequence of it will be legislation.

This morning the Secretary of State made a very significant point when he said that adoption societies and local authorities have provided a piecemeal provision and that there has not been an adequate assessment of the needs of the children to which the report refers. But, more than that, apparently very little work has been done in the past in studying in depth the extent of the problem—apart from the work of the committee which prepared this excellent report.

About 500,000 people in Britain are adopted at present. An average of about 24,000 adoptions are determined annually. About 6,000 children are in need of substitute homes. It is a hard fact of life that of the children who are in care at present about 23 per cent. see their natural parents once a month, perhaps, and over 40 per cent. do not see them at all. That kind of statistical view is indicative of the magnitude of the problem. I should have thought that the work that has been done on the report, excellent as the House says that it is, would have been sufficient to prompt some action by the Government already, bearing in mind that it has been in their hands for about 13 months.

It is an interesting exercise to pursue the legal arguments and the technicalities involved with problems of adoption, and of guardianship and fostering. It would be an interesting projection of the argument to enter into the whole matter of child care. Although a great deal of work has been done in relation to child care, to the highest of standards, by local authorities, there is still room for concern. I have recently experienced this. I am told that it is not uncommon that the loss of the love and attention of the natural parents has not been replaced with anything like what is needed for the proper development of children in some children's homes. The disciplines are sometimes not far removed from disciplines of a Victorian character. Children in some of our homes are not allowed out of them as often as they might be to see the areas in which they live. Indeed, in one case that was brought to my attention, the allowance for the subsistence of children in a home had brought about a diet which was confined to supplies from the deep freeze, and a lack of good fresh vegetables was noticed in that establishment. I went to one childrens' home and I can recall that the children were uncannilly quiet. They had to do what they were told and open their mouths only when given permission.

It is possible to project the complexities of guardianship, adoption and fostering into the area of care. There is much that can be done. I shall not pursue the technicalities. The report has done that very well. It is easy to talk about objectives, and the objective of the report is to consider the long-term benefits for the child. As in every approach of that kind, we defeat what we have in mind by not accepting total responsibility. We are not spending enough money, anyway. We are not training officers in the right places and at the right time and in the right numbers. Many of our workers are far too overworked. The Government should examine that problem.

The long-term consideration of a child's benefits can be achieved only by having a service with a firm foundation which is harmonised so as to bring together people who are trained, people who are paid and people who know their jobs. It must be accepted that hurried decisions cannot be made about a child's future, and that extreme care must be taken.

We have evidence already of the Secretary of State's hesitation in wanting to accept the proper kind of responsibility for an adoption service. The right hon. Gentleman says that until now—and we are now in the 1970s—the approach has been of a piecemeal kind and that about half of the local authorities in the United Kingdom provide no adoption service. He then says that the recommendation of registration with central Government does not appeal to him, and indicates that although he wants to hear the views of hon. Members his consideration is based on local government structure and his hopes about what the new local government structure can do.

That is not a good reason for dodging the obligations of central Government registration and total responsibility. There are many local authorities which have not taken much interest. Some of those authorities have amalgamated into the new authorities. Their attitudes towards the problem are not likely to alter in spite of the urgent requirements set out in the report.

The Government should consider implementing a national registration system and should accept agency responsibilities arising from the recommendations in the report to adoption societies and to all local authorities. Arising from that, they should accept, through the adoption societies and through local authorities, the firm commitment that the service will be properly and financially based to achieve the objective of having people in the service who are properly trained under the auspices of the right hon. Gentleman's Department. Only when such a network is accepted in principle can there be any talk in terms of the necessary money and machinery to tackle the specific related problems of individuals. We do not want any recurrence of a case like the Desremault case, in Newcastle, or the recent tragic case in Brighton. Neither should the Government seek to saddle social workers with a responsibility they have not been trained to accept.

Those involved in conflicts affecting children cannot proceed properly if they have to walk up dusty stairs to magistrates' courts where there are no facilities and where there are too many policemen about. These problems cannot be tackled in the juvenile court. Magistrates, who are commendable people, are far too busy to be able to devote the time to undergo the training necessary to tackle these complex problems. Nor is it an improvement to take this responsibility from the juvenile court into the domestic court. The report says—quite properly —that this step must be only a transitional one and that there must be a proper family court staffed by people fully competent to take the decisions which the evidence justifies.

The report provides the House with an opportunity to express its view. The societies in the North, in particular, are concerned about the timing of the debate and the reasons for it. I ask for an undertaking that there will be early legislation. There are far too many broken families and far too many problems for us to sit back complacently waiting, first, for a General Election, and then again for two or three years before the report is carried into effect in legislation

3.13 p.m.

Mr. John Fraser

I speak again by leave of the House. I shall not make a winding-up speech. I speak only to save interrupting the Under-Secretary.

In this valuable debate sincere and well-thought-out contributions have been made which I hope the Secretary of State will take note of when he makes his proposals.

Varying views have been expressed on the report. There has been complete unanimity on the need to act speedily. The Under-Secretary would be failing in his duty, and certainly failing to respond to the mood of the debate, if he did not at the very least try to lay out some timetable for consultation and for publication of the Government's conclusions which would be the foundation of legislation. The very least that he can do is to say that there will be reconsideration of the Secretary of State's decision that there will not be legislation this Session, and that the Secretary of State will think again about this and try to respond to the mood of the House.

As I said in opening, I am sure that the House would try to see legislation through quickly and not be obstructive. That would respond to the needs of the children whom we have been considering, which should be our paramount consideration.

3.15 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Michael Alison)

This debate has been technically on a "take note" motion, but that formula understates the considerable usefulness and interest of the debate.

As the House well knows, the report contains 92 recommendations in an area in which, perhaps uniquely, the House is bound to tread cautiously, for the point of the report is that sooner or later Parliament must, as it were, clamp down the press of a fixed and impersonal statute upon the human situation, the human condition, in its most mobile, its most vulnerable and its most personal form.

The awesomeness of what this implies has not been lost on the House this afternoon, as has been shown by the speeches. The prospect of having to formalise in some rigid framework of statute law the situations that we have been considering this afternoon ensures that we tread cautiously and move cautiously. In a multitude of counsellors is safety, in a special sense, in this area.

I do not in any way dodge the request that on behalf of my right hon. Friend I should elaborate the implications of the time scale, but I must ask hon. Members to remind themselves of the material with which we are dealing and the implications of the crystallisation of policy in statute form in this respect. With this awesome prospect, we are in duty bound to make certain that we have it as nearly right as possible.

Among the contributions this afternoon we had speeches from three hon. Members—the hon. Members for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy), East Ham, South (Mr. Oram) and for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead)—who are all directly and personally involved in this situation and whose speeches were compelling. The report itself is a model of how to weigh the needs and sensitivities of the personal situation, the human dilemma, in its most acute form impersonally, in that impersonal character unavoidable in law making.

The insight into human dimensions which keeps cropping up in the report is immensely encouraging to anyone who has studied it. Let me again say what enormous value it is, and will be, to have the presence of the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devon-port (Dame Joan Vickers), who is abroad and deeply regrets not being able to take part in this debate, stretched across the span of the whole environment of the report, ultimately right into the Standing Committee which will be considering the nuts and bolts of the legislation. It is one of the most encouraging features of the situation that in a subject of extreme sensitivity, when we have to clamp statute form on a human situation, we shall have the advantage of the presence of those hon. Members in the law-making process itself, in the very womb of the Committee.

I come to the theme that has repeatedly occurred in the debate—the anxiety that the Government should act promptly and almost immediately in the context of what the report has proposed. With regret, I have to say that I cannot meet the request of the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. John Fraser).

Against the background of what I consider to be the need to hasten slowly, in the best sense, I want to sketch out how the legislative time scale and background looks. The report was in the hands of the Home Secretary in July 1972 and was published in October of that year. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State became responsible on 23rd April of this year. Since then we have given detailed thought and consideration to the recommendations and to the comments made by various interested bodies, for example the British Association of Social Workers, the Association of British Adoption Agencies, the National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations, the Justices' Clerks Society, and so on.

We have already taken action on the report and two of the 92 recommendations have been implemented. Recommendation No. 26 recommended giving courts power to make a supervision order with a custody order or a care order in certain circumstances if a custody order were not forthcoming. This has already become part of the Guardianship Act 1973. Following Recommendation No. 54, rules of court have been made requiring a person seeking to dispense with the parents' consent to adoption to furnish the court and parents with the grounds on which he intends to rely. We have not been totally inactive.

Other relevant action to which my right hon. Friend referred earlier includes the setting up of a working party on the fostering practice of local authorities and voluntary associations. This was suggested in paragraph 150 of the report. We have made a grant to the Association of British Adoption Agencies to help in its general promotional work, the importance of which should not be underestimated.

My right hon. Friend and my ministerial colleagues considered the possibility of legislating in this Session. We decided against it only because of the time required to reach properly weighed decisions on the 60 recommendations of the 90-odd remaining which require legislation. The complexity and length of a Bill embodying these recommendations, after agreement with the interested parties, cannot and should not be underestimated. We judged that it simply was not proper to try to rush this through the parliamentary draftsmen to get it into an acceptable form in time to include it in this Session. Important as it is to get the necessary legislation on to the statute book, it is still more important that it should be workable and acceptable.

Let me remind the House that there are 60 recommendations which would require legislation. The improvement and extension of the services available, the logistics as it were, are essential preliminaries—essential, for example, to the introduction of the new safeguards for foster parents, the better procedures for would-be adopters and the wider choice of legal relationships between children and substitute parents. It is understandable that hon. Members should be impatient over the delays that are unavoidable in the passage of a full-scale Bill. In my view, however, a premature Bill, one rushed through the House without all factors being fully weighed and considered by outside bodies, before the logistics are in a complementary sense moving forward to sustain and implement the recommendations, could result in more harm than good. This is because it might bring useful changes into disrepute before there was any chance of launching them successfully.

I do not apologise to the House for saying that I believe we are right to take this line. We are in no sense delaying for the sake of it or for ulterior purposes. We are right to hasten slowly. We shall bring legislation forward as soon as we feel we can honourably do so, when recommendations in statutory form are likely to be successfully implemented on the ground by the agencies and local authorities in a position logistically to do so.

Mr. Oram

The Under-Secretary has rested his case on the complexity of the matter and the need for caution in approach. However, can he assure us that there is no controversy behind the decision to delay? In the reactions of the various bodies to the report, has there been unanimity and general acceptance of the principles of the report? My impression is that there has, and I believe that that is the impression of the House.

Mr. Alison

I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no controversy within the Government. Some of the report's recommendations, particularly those on fostering, involve many cross-current flows of opinion which must be properly weighed, and we are weighing them now. But there is no inhibiting controversy in the sense that there is some negative factor operating. It is the positive desire to navigate in the right direction on this somewhat fluid stream of opinion which is leading us to hasten forward slowly and cautiously.

It would be wrong of me to try to answer the large number of points which have been raised in the debate. I do not think that it is incumbent on me to answer the debate. The usefulness of the debate is that a reservoir of ideas and notions have flowed from the speeches of Members who represent a considerable body of experience—from the hon. Member who served on the committee to hon. Members who have served on local authorities, and to those who are deeply personally involved in this matter, as adoptive parents or themselves adopted children. We shall want to draw upon this reservoir of insight.

The hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) raised a point about the jurisdiction of juvenile courts in adoption proceedings. The committee recommended, as an interim measure, pending the outcome of the Law Commission's working party on family courts, that adoption proceedings in magistrates' courts should be transferred from juvenile courts to domestic courts and that the magistrates who sit in those courts should be specially selected. That would overcome, at least in the short term, some of the objections raised by many people to parties in adoption proceedings having to share waiting rooms and other court accommodation with people involved in other cases. It would also enable adoption or guardianship applications to be dealt with in the same magistrates' court. However, I will consider more fully the points which the hon. Member made on court matters.

The subject upon which I should perhaps concentrate is the "Children who Wait" situation. We have all been struck by the reference of the hon. Member for Norwood to the 90,000 children in care, which must in any debate concerning children and their proper location raise a ghastly spectre of an army of children in need and of their security, affection and long-term expectations which we take for granted in our own families.

In fact, 30,000 of the 90,000 are already boarded out and fostered. Approved schools and remand homes and other children's homes, which we now call community homes, account for 38,000. Those living with parents, relatives and so on account for another 15,000 and those in hostels and so on amount to 7,000. The publication we have all been thinking about, "Children who Wait", estimates that of the 90,000, between 6,000 and 7,000 are in need of permanent substitute families and 2,000 could be adopted.

It is right in this context to remind the the House of what my right hon. Friend said about this group of children in his opening speech. He focused attention on the four essential issues for those children who are in the care of local authorities or voluntary children's organisations and who are in need of permanent substitute families.

First, there should be systematic access to an integrated child care service which, if it were comprehensive, would include an adoption service.

Secondly, it should be easier to free these children for secure fostering, without the fear of their parents removing them abruptly. I am sure that all hon. Members who heard it were aghast at the example given in the speech made by the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Thomas Cox) of the child who was taken away at short notice after having been with a foster family for seven years. That is exactly the sort of situation with which we must come to grips.

Thirdly, this group of children should be freed for guardianship in the sense that, if the foster parents applied for guardianship after five years, they would know that the natural parents would not be able to remove their children before the court had had an opportunity to hear the application and the views of all the parties concerned.

Fourthly, these children should be freed for adoption by means of the local authority or the registered voluntary adoption society in whose care they had been placed being enabled to apply to the court for parental rights to be relinquished to them and for the parents' consent to adoption to be dispensed with on one of the statutory grounds.

In considering these four points, my right hon. Friend stressed that in this "Children who Wait" situation—we were all profoundly impressed by the speech made by the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor)—the emphasis should be laid on the interests of the child. If we move too much against the rights of parents, they will find ways and means of getting round the law if we crystalise it in statutory form. If we impose time limits, even extended time limits, parents who want to do so will get round them. We should hesitate before doing anything which will result in frustrating the possibility of children who should be fostered from being fostered.

That is one reason why my right hon. Friend and I are not ashamed to say that we are hastening slowly with legislation. The committee was hesitant in prescribing legislation and said that there are certain situations for which we shall never be able to legislate. The Government can claim credit in that within the area which will remain resistant to effective lawmaking we are already moving forward in the promotional work we are encouraging with the adoption societies and in the social work service that we offer, and will continue more vigorously to offer, local authorities. In this context it is of great help to have the issues crystallised for us. To try to put all this in legislative form, particularly in the context of the insight which the hon. Member for Eton and Slough has given us, might do more harm than good.

We have had a lengthy debate. It would perhaps be proper for me not to extend it further but for Ministers to consider what has been said. I cannot do better than end by quoting from paragraphs 15 and 16 of the report: The welfare of the child is best secured within his own family if he can be brought up in a stable and happy environment…[...] There are some children who cannot be brought up by their own parents, and society must offer a satisfactory alternative plan for the care and future development of such children. The debate this afternoon will enable us to take further steps towards the achievement of this aim.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of the Report of the Departmental Committee on the Adoption of Children (Command No. 5107).

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