§ Mr. David Amess (Basildon)
I beg to move,That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a statutory code of practice for adoption agencies; to amend the Adoption Act 1976; and for connected purposes.
In seeking the leave of the House to amend the Adoption Act 1976, I recognise that I am in a privileged position. I am the father of three small children and in 10 weeks' time I shall be the father of a fourth. We are lucky to be able to have children more or less to order while many couples are desperate to have children of their own and are not so blessed.
Just before Christmas, I visited Basildon hospital to play the role of Father Christmas. I was taken to the special baby care unit and shown eight babies. One of them had been born at 24 weeks and I am delighted to tell the House that that baby is doing well. In another cot was a big bruiser of a baby weighing 9 lb 15 oz. He had no name on his identification tag. The nurse told me that he had been born only that day and that a couple had been found who would give him their love. That certainly put the Christmas festivities into context for me.
The latest figures for England and Wales show that in the past year 69,249 children were in care and 7,390 children were adopted. Behind those stark figures lies in every case an individual human being who perhaps experienced the loss of both parents or a broken home, or who is simply unwanted. We tend to hear about the sensational cases of children being taken into care or of couples seeking to adopt. Those cases grab the headlines and tend to concentrate one's mind. I am concerned about the vast majority of cases—those that may be described as the ordinary cases.
I am anxious that the present system should overlook no one. It is difficult for people with their own children to imagine the heartbreak that childless couples can experience during the adopton process. It can be a traumatic time for couples who have been trying to have their own baby for a number of years, and who are ruled out of consideration as adoptive parents because of their age.
Most organisations involved in adoptions agree that the greatest demand is for babies and that there are not enough babies for those who wish to adopt them. Although there are enough children to meet the demand for them, sadly they do not always meet the requirements of prospective adoptive parents.
One would have to be very hard not to be moved by the details in the files of children waiting to be adopted. The smiling photographs are usually accompanied by personal details, and the overall message is of asking a family to give their love. There must be room for improvement in a system in which a boy of eight has been moved 38 times; in which some children spend all their time in care and are never matched to prospective adoptive parents; and in which other children are simply overlooked.
The overriding consideration in approving adoptive parents is the extent to which the adoption agency is satisfied that the applicants have the capacity for love, understanding, patience and flexibility that are required to meet not only the universal needs of a growing child but the specific needs of the child in question. Such considerations can include a child's physical or mental 306 handicap, or degree of emotional disturbance, or behavioural disorders. A child may need assistance in understanding his or her origins in an unhappy or unsavoury relationship, and may also need help in learning about his or her racial or cultural origins—which may be very different from those of the adoptive parents.
Adoption agencies, rightly, wish to satisfy themselves as to the health, vigour, imagination and other capacities of the adoptive parents during the subject's childhood. But I much regret any discrimination on the ground of age, especially when it is directed at grandparents. I pay a warm tribute to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell), who has been active in representing the interests of grandparents. Age is certainly being used as an instrument of control by some adoption agencies. My parents may have been considered by some as relatively aged, but I do not believe that I suffered from it.
Adoption law is complicated. The Children Act 1975 was consolidated into the Adoption Act 1976. A requirement of the Adoption Agencies Regulations 1983, which came into force in 1984, was that an adoption panel be set up. The new structure comprised seven family placement panels, each serving two adjacent social service areas. The linking was based on geographical proximity and attempted to amalgamate areas with a high population of children in care with those with a smaller number.
The panels have several functions which include fulfilling the criteria laid down in the regulations regarding the adoption of children, approving or rejecting applications from all families and individuals offering permanent substitute family care, ensuring that the child's feelings and wishes are taken into consideration and that she or he is appropriately prepared for placement, and examining all short-term placements that are expected to exceed two months' duration.
The Bill will require adoption panels to produce regular reports to the adoption agency which will include a review of their policies, range and volume of work and, perhaps more importantly, will require that the children's cases are reviewed, ensuring that in future no child is overlooked. As the system operates now, there is no uniformity among adoption agencies. They should publish widely their policies and practices, and the range and volume of work that they have undertaken annually. Sadly, there are children, particularly in inner-city areas, who have no individual attached to their case. The code of practice that I suggest would require those with responsibility for such matters to report back regularly on progress in finding homes for the children; then appropriate action would be agreed.
The temptation for some individuals, remembering the graphic pictures of children in Romania, is to go abroad, bring the children into the country and then seek adoption orders. I am advised by adoption agencies that that practice is causing particular difficulties.
The specific purpose of the measure is to improve the efficiency of matching prospective adoptive parents to suitable children. As I believe that I am the last Member to have spent the night seeking the privilege of introducing a ten-minute Bill, I can think of no finer cause for legislation. I very much hope that the House will support the motion.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Amess, Mr. Tony Banks, Mrs. Rosie Barnes, Mr. Harry Cohen, Sir 307 Geoffrey Finsberg, Mr. Roger Gale, Mr. Ken Hargreaves, Mr. David Hinchliffe, Mr. Simon Hughes, Sir Charles Irving, Mr. Ray Powell and Miss Ann Widdecombe.