HC Deb 19 December 1991 vol 201 cc559-66

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Greg Knight.]

10.35 pm
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

It is opportune that I should have the Adjournment debate today because my daughter, Sophie, returned last night after working in an orphanage in Romania with the most harrowing account of the problems in that crisis-struck country. She had been working at Ionaseni orphanage for irrecuperables and also at the adult psychiatric hospital at Podriga 40 miles away in Moldavia near the Russian border.

Children who are born to the inmates of Podriga are removed at birth and taken to the baby orphanage in nearby Botaseni. Untouched and unloved, there is nothing wrong with them, but they are left in cots until they are three years old, at which time they go to the Ionaseni orphanage as irrecuperables. If they survive to the age of 16 they are transferred to an adult institution such as Podriga and the whole cycle is repeated. The way to break that cycle is for the children to be adopted, but little attempt seems to be made by the Romanian authorities to have those children adopted and the new Rornanian adoption committee appears to be just another barrier to prevent these children from having the chance of a family life either in Romania or abroad.

Romania is only one of many countries where problems have overwhelmed the capacity to cope, so that orphan children are cruelly abandoned, if not to die, to live a bleak and loveless life in an institution or even on the streets, in many cases to die of AIDS which could have been prevented.

The Minister will remember that I raised the issue of inter-country adoption in an Adjournment debate on 29 October last year when I called for a proper helpline in the form of an independent but officially recognised and supported advice and information centre for couples wishing to adopt a child from abroad. More than a year later would-be parents are still having to organise their own informal ad hoc helplines. Deborah Fowler, author of "The Story of Michael", is privately helping nearly 100 couples who are on the mailing list for her fact sheets. I do not know whether the Minister has had a chance to read "The Story of Michael", but I have a copy of this excellent book to give her. In the epilogue to the book, Deborah Fowler says: Around the world there are many thousands of couples who would make wonderful parents and who are only stopped from being so because, for whatever reason, they are not able to make a child. Similarly, across the globe, millions of children eke out their miserable lives without love, care or proper food, and with no hope for today and little hope for tomorrow. Surely the sensible, practical humanitarian answer to this problem is to put the two together. If you have room in your heart, in your home, for a child, then think seriously about the plight of the Romanian children and, if you decide you have something to offer such a child, then fight and kick and scream against the red tape, against the system, as we had to do. And go to Romania, find your special child and give him or her the love that he or she would never have had but for you. The Fowlers are going to Romania for an interview with the Romanian adoption committee on 9 January. They have written to the Minister and I hope that she will give them all possible assistance in their quest for a second child to adopt. On 6 December, they wrote: What I am asking is that you use us as a test case—we have DOH clearance in a form which was acceptable to the Romanians, and we have an appointment made with the Committee at the highest level. Please could you try and find a formula to enable the DOH to present our case to the Committee for that date. This request is not just for us—we are lucky enough to have five happy, healthy children—it is also for all the other prospective parents waiting desperately for the `all-clear'. I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that the Government help the Fowlers in their meeting with the Romanian adoption committee on 9 January.

Many other countries have specialist agencies to advise and assist couples wishing to adopt from abroad. It is agreed by all concerned that what is needed here is a proper advice service for parents, so that they find out the right way to go about adopting from abroad. I hope that my hon. Friend can tell me tonight of her progress in helping to ensure that there will be a proper helpline for would-be parents.

The local authority social services departments would also benefit from such an expert source of advice and assistance. Many local authorities have been helpful and sympathetic to would-be adopters, but I regret to say that a few local authorities have been the opposite. I suggest that my hon. Friend places a statutory duty on local authorities to provide this help if she does not wish to go so far as to set up a separate overseas adoption agency, as is done in many other countries.

Local authorities should have a duty to complete home studies in, at the very most, six months, and they should not charge more than £1,000. This duty should be part of the Prime Minister's citizens charter, since the United Nations charter of human rights refers to the right to found a family, as well as the rights of the child to have the best possible life.

I have three points to put to my hon. Friend. I have already mentioned the first—the need for an independent helpline. The second is that there should be a statutory duty on local authorities to carry out home studies, and the third point follows. The would-be parents must have an adequate means of appealing against the absolute power of these local authorities. Surely the parents should be able to appeal to the Secretary of State rather than have to go through the cumbersome and expensive procedure of a judicial review in the courts of law.

Because there is no proper helpline, let alone a comprehensive system for inter-country adoption, abuses can develop, and then attempts are made to stop inter-country adoptions. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that, rather than stopping couples giving a loving home to such children, we should help them to adopt in a proper fashion.

My hon. Friend is rightly opposed to a two-tier adoption system, with inferior standards for overseas adoptions, but I would raise two questions. First, since it is not possible to foster a child from abroad as the first step towards adoption, is there not an inherent difference between adoption here in the United Kingdom and adoption from overseas? Secondly, should not all children adopted from overseas really be regarded as special needs children, as so many of them have suffered severe deprivation in their earliest life? Parents need special counselling and advice for children adopted from overseas, and because fostering is not possible, more and not less care is needed in ensuring that the adoption process is successful. For these reasons, for children overseas not to be discriminated against, couples wishing to adopt them need extra help, not less, as is the case only too often.

In this country, the leading source of advice and information on adoption is the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering. It was through BAAF that my wife and I adopted Stephen, who had been featured for 18 months in the "Be My Parent" book. BAAF has traditionally focused on the needs of British children, but I hope that it will widen its horizons, because it has been regarded as unhelpful and ill informed by many would-be parents who have contacted it for advice on overseas adoptions. Romanian orphans coming to Britain do not reduce the chance of British children being adopted, they stimulate the whole process, so that more families come forward wishing to adopt special needs children. Inter-country adoption is here to stay, and trying to stop inter-country adoption will not help the British children who need to be adopted. Furthermore, it should stimulate the Romanians and others to adopt their own children in the first place.

Some people have resisted inter-country adoption on racial grounds, but my hon. Friend may be interested to see the reports in the papers today about Professor Tizard's findings, announced yesterday, that it is wrong to think that colour should be the central consideration when placing children with foster parents. A successful independent helpline should be a co-ordinated and effective service able to respond to the needs of children in crisis-ridden countries such as Romania and to the needs of parent-led groups such as Stork, the Association for Romanian Children, Families International and the various family associations for El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Chile and so on, not to mention informal ad hoc groups led by parents such as the Fowlers and the Marriotts.

The organisation should be independent with background and experience in children's families and adoption and fostering work, not a Government Department in which the key workers are career civil servants who do not necessarily have parent-child client contact or professional experience.

The staff themselves must be positive and enthusiastic, but not under the influence of Labour-controlled authorities such as Camden, Lambeth and Haringey where there has been such misguided resistance to inter-country adoption.

The Children Act 1989 introduced by the Government sets high standards for children. We cannot just take the Labour party's line of throwing money at children in crises overseas and then turning our backs.

BAAF has a good record of helping children with special needs in Britain. It should now play its part in helping children with special needs overseas. We should have a worldwide "Be My Parent" book for children who cannot be adopted in their own countries.

Many thousands of couples in Britain and abroad could be encouraged to adopt a child with special needs if given the right advice and support. That is the challenge which faces us all and one which I know that my hon. Friend will do her utmost to resolve so that families can be found for children whose needs are so great.

I should like my hon. Friend the Minister first to set up a positive and properly funded helpline to assist would-be parents with advice and information; secondly, to impose a statutory duty on local authorities to provide home studies within, at most, six months at a cost of no more than £1,000; thirdly, to establish an appeal procedure for people aggrieved by local authority decisions; and, fourthly, to regard overseas adoptions as special needs cases where the parents need encouragement, not discouragement, when they are acting out of the best humanitarian instincts.

10.46 pm
The Minister for Health (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley)

The House is once again indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) for raising a subject of great importance and significance. He speaks with great authority on questions concerning children, particularly the adoption of children. I pay tribute to his campaign to ensure that there is proper recognition of the significant part played by inter-country adoption.

In my constituency, I have been involved in helping to establish the inter-country adoption of a child from Romania for two families. Since those adoptions were completed, I have met the families and have been impressed by the dedicated care of the parents, the warmth of their home and the welcome for the children, both of whom have had considerable problems in settling after difficult experiences.

Britain has a proud tradition of adoption; a record which has led the way in many respects. My hon. Friend mentioned British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, with which he and his family have had contact over the years. There is no doubt that its work in establishing homes for hard-to-place children is remarkable. There are many children in Britain who in other parts of the world would be condemned to a childhood in an institution but who BAAF, by its remorseless and determined approach, has succeeded in placing in families who have adopted them and given them long-term security and care.

But as the number of babies available for adoption in Britain has diminished—perhaps only 1,000 babies a year now under the age of one are placed for adoption compared with about 7,000 a year 20 years ago—and with the increasing concern about crises in other parts of the world of which television has made us increasingly aware, there has arisen a desire among those parents unable to adopt a child at home to fulfil a humanitarian need and provide a home for a child from overseas while meeting their need for a family at home.

However, it is important not to let that understandable desire to provide a home for a child override concerns that proper safeguards are in place in inter-country adoption. It would be wrong for lower standards to apply for children from overseas. There have already been tragic cases where children have been brought to this country for adoptions that have not been successful. As my hon. Friend said, fostering is not an appropriate first step in such cases—so it is all the more important that proper safeguards should be applied. It is a matter of judgment whether a safeguard is seen as a form of bureaucracy and red tape.

It must be right that a child is free for adoption and has not been secured as a result of bribery or trafficking. Also, the parents must be suitable, with the necessary stability and maturity to adopt that important responsibility.

As my hon. Friend knows, since his Adjournment debate on the subject a year ago, my Department has been actively involved, and I am happy to report a considerable improvement between local authorities, adoption agencies, and would-be adoptive parents. The chief inspector of social services issued firm guidance making it clear that home study reports must be completed—and it should be the norm that they are completed in advance—in making special arrangements for children who are the subject of inter-country as opposed to domestic adoption.

Any cases that have come to my Department's attention where there has been resistance from local authorities have been the subject of urgent discussion between it and the particular agency concerned. I am impressed by the speed with which many authorities changed their practices and policies to provide precisely the service that my hon. Friend requires.

My hon. Friend will appreciate that there are always difficult cases in which, for one reason or another, would-be adoptive parents have not been thought suitable for inter-country or domestic adoption. It is not possible to go into detail, because such cases are confidential. However, it could never be right that any family wishing to be involved in an inter-country adoption should have their application automatically rubber-stamped.

My hon. Friend made particular mention of the establishment of a helpline, and I consider that to be a high priority. Parents who have an understandable desire to adopt a child from overseas should have a source of independent advice, encouragement, information and counselling.

At this stage, it is not my view that we should pursue the option of an agency devoted exclusively to the assessment of suitable families for inter-country adoption. Such assessments should be part of mainstream adoption work. After all, in those sad cases where something goes wrong, it is likely that the local authority will have to pick up the pieces, and secure and safeguard the child's welfare.

The other argument for a helpline is that it could offer advice to local authorities and adoption agencies. In cases where information is sought about adopting a child from Thailand, Pakistan, Paraguay, or Romania, not all local authorities—despite their many skills—have up-to-date information about the circumstances in those particular countries. Recently there have been developments in, for example, Romania, with the establishment of the Romanian adoption committee. Local authorities would benefit from a helpline to which they could refer for the latest advice on the state of play in particular countries.

This debate comes at a particularly opportune time, because this week the United Kingdom ratified the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which is a landmark for children. It enshrines the principles of the Children Act 1989, and shares its underlying ethos that children should be seen and heard, and have their interests properly respected. The convention embodies important aspects of relevance to inter-country adoption.

Article 21 endorses the principles of the 1986 United Nations declaration on social and legal principles relating to the protection and welfare of children. Essentially, it requires the signatories to recognise that inter-country adoption may be considered as an alternative means of child care—if the child cannot be placed in a foster home or an adoptive family, or cannot in any way be cared for in a suitable manner in its country of origin; to ensure that the child affected by inter-country adoption enjoys standards and safeguards equivalent to those existing in the case of national adoption; and to take all appropriate measures to ensure that the placement does not result in improper financial gain for those involved in it.

I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that those principles underlying the United Nations convention are exactly the principles that I have sought to illustrate. There are, however, further international developments, which will, I think, reassure and encourage parents who believe that there is a proper role for inter-country adoption, but recognise increasingly that it must be properly regulated and controlled. I refer, of course, to the Hague conference.

The United Kingdom is playing a full part in the special commission set up in 1990 by the Hague conference on private international law. The commission is working on the development of an international convention in international adoption, which will incorporate the principles set out in the convention. Between 3 and 17 February, senior officials from the Department will be in the Hague, where they are playing a leading part in the discussions.

I can also report to my hon. Friend that the United Kingdom is undertaking a review of adoption law. Much of our adoption law dates back to 1976. Since then, traditions, expectations and patterns of adoption have changed—not least the development of inter-country adoption, which ran at some 50 cases a year until December 1989, and is now running at over 300 cases a year. We should, I think, expect the rate to grow.

The fourth paper in the series of reviews of the law concerning the adoption of children is on inter-country adoption. We hope to produce that consultation document early in the new year. It is important for my hon. Friend, with his specialist knowledge—together, of course, with the Campaign for Inter-Country Adoption, and many of the other organisations that he mentioned—to scrutinise the document, and to give considered responses.

My hon. Friend's second point took the form of a request for a statutory duty to undertake a home study; such issues could certainly be considered in that context. According to our latest information, local authorities and agencies have been prepared to undertake home study reports. Parents have not always received the reports for which they hoped, but, in our experience, there is no resistance to the undertaking of such reports—although I am well aware that there has been in the past.

I know that my hon. Friend will agree that—although in some cases families have beaten the rules and evaded the regulations, and in some instances the children concerned have settled happily—that cannot be a proper, effective or right way for us to pursue what is an understandable and, in many respects, laudable aim and aspiration. I am certain that the time has come for us to find ways—both through our domestic rules and regulations, and internationally—to streamline the process of giving people greater recognition and understanding, while also safeguarding children's needs.

My hon. Friend has spoken of children having special needs. I appreciate his point: many of the children involved have particular difficulties. Those who have spent many years in an institution may well have emotional, developmental and, in many cases, medical difficulties. That is why our advice recommends that a child has a medical assessment before an inter-country adoption proceeds. Once again, my hon. Friend will be aware, from the experience of his daughters, not least, of the difficulties involved, in all too many cases, in securing a medical report.

My hon. Friend has more up-to-date information than I about the position in Romania, but there is movement there. Senior Department of Health officials have made a second visit to Romania. They are trying to help the Romanian Government to develop their control and regulation of inter-country adoption. Once it is appreciated in most countries that a significant number of children are leaving, it is understandable that there should be a domestic reaction and that pressure should be put on the Government to ensure proper safeguards and regulation. The Romanian adoption committee has made it clear that it does not anticipate that it will be able to agree to inter-country adoptions before March of next year.

My hon. Friend referred to the Fowler family. They have written to me and I have responded to their letters. I regret that I can add nothing to what I said in my latest letter at the end of November. The Romanian Government are committed to ensuring that proper arrangements are in place before they are prepared to embark on any further inter-country adoptions. I shall continue to look carefully at the case to see whether there is any further advice that I feel able to offer.

I believe that very considerable progress is being made in an area of great sensitivity and growing significance. We live in a world where increasingly it is becoming the concern of us all that children throughout the world should be offered a safe, stable and happy home. None of us accepts that children should grow up in institutions, particularly those of the nature that my hon. Friend described. Where inter-country adoption is appropriate, it must be effectively regulated, with proper safeguards.

Parents cannot be said to be entitled to a child. Nobody has the right to a child. However, wherever possible, children have the right to a safe and happy home. I hope that we can continue to work closely with my hon. Friend, and those organisations which in many cases he has established and certainly befriended so effectively, in order to ensure that the high standards of child care and adoption practice to which we are accustomed in this country are developed and modified properly to incorporate the growing work of inter-country adoption.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Eleven o'clock.

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