HC Deb 12 November 1992 vol 213 cc1045-76

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

6.42 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Tim Yeo)

The debate this evening provides the House with an opportunity to consider the recent report to Ministers by the interdepartmental working group, set up in 1989 to carry out a review of adoption law. The report was published in full on 19 October and was made available to hon. Members in the usual way. I welcome the opportunity to bring to the attention of the House some of the more important and innovative proposals contained in the report.

The House should be aware that there is no commitment by the Government at this stage to proceed with any of the recommendations contained in the report. We wish to encourage further debate on the proposals. That is why we are anxious for the report to reach as wide an audience as possible—not only from within the public and voluntary sectors but from individuals affected by adoption or who have had experience of the adoption process. But today's debate, is not just an opportunity for consideration of the report's proposals. I hope, within the limits of order, that it will also give the House an opportunity to discuss all aspects of adoption which may be affected by the proposals.

It is 20 years since the Houghton committee produced the last report on adoption law and practice. The recommendations of that committee were the main principles underlying the Adoption Act 1976 and included the restriction of power to arrange adoptions to local authorities and approved adoption societies; placing local authorities under a duty to provide a comprehensive adoption service, and giving adult adopted people the right to obtain a copy of their original entry in the register of births.

The intervening years have seen many developments in the social structure of our society, particularly in relation to the family and the care and protection of children. Since 1976, adoption practice has developed in response to the new obligations placed upon agencies and courts in recognition of those social trends. Changes in professional and public concepts of the needs of children, birth families and adoptive families have brought about developments in social work theory and practice. There has been growing recognition of the desirability of involving birth parents in the adoption process; and of the need felt by some adopted people to learn about their origins and make contact with members of birth families.

There has continued to be a steady fall in the number of babies needing adoptive families, and therefore an increasing emphasis on placing older children, children in care and children with special needs. In 1974, the total number of children placed for adoption in England and Wales was 22,502, of which more than 5,000 were under the age of one year. In 1990, the total fell to under a third of that figure—6,533—of which only 969 were under one year of age. Many voluntary adoption societies are developing specialised family-finding services, especially for children with special needs. Inter-agency working arrangements and partnerships between agencies have been developed. There has also been a growth in the number and range of other voluntary organisations and self-help groups to meet the needs of people involved in adoption, especially in connection with post-adoption services.

Since 1979, several legislative measures have been introduced to improve child care and the reform of family law. The Children Act 1989—"the charter for children" —is the most recent and notable example. The review of adoption law is a logical consequence of the Children Act and is also part of the Lord Chancellor's review of family law.

In July 1989, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, with the Lord Chancellor, Home Secretary and other Ministers established the interdepartmental working group comprising officials from the health Department's, the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys and a law commissioner. The group was supported by a joint team from the Department of Health and the Law Commission. I should like to pay a warm tribute to the work of that group.

The group's work followed on the Royal Assent to the Children Act in November 1989, and the review has been conducted in a similar way to the review which led to that legislation. Four consultation papers were issued—"The Nature and Effect of Adoption" in September 1990; "Agreement and Freeing" in September 1991; "The Adoption Process" in November 1991; and "Intercountry Adoption" in January 1992. In addition, three background papers on international perspectives, research relating to adoption and inter-country adoption were also issued as part of the consultation material. More than 200 organisations and individuals responded to those papers. Members of the group also met representatives of organisations involved in the various aspects of adoption. The results of those wide-ranging discussions are contained in the review.

The review looks at all aspects of adoption law and practice including, most importantly, an examination of the nature and effect of adoption; agreement to adoption; a review of court procedures; alternatives to adoption orders available under the Children Act 1989; improving the adoption service; and inter-country adoption.

Adoption continues to provide an important service for children. In the provision of this service, the needs of the child come first and the welfare of the child must be the paramount consideration. This principle has been rigorously maintained by the working group throughout its work on the review—and quite rightly. The purpose of adoption is to provide children with families, not families with children. There is no room for dogma when dealing with an issue as complex and important as this. What is needed is common sense, compassion and a sound legal framework.

The report contains a total of 45 main recommendations, some confirming present practice, some amending and extending it, and I draw the attention of hon. Members to a few of them. The first is the need for local authorities to have a duty to establish and give due weight to the wishes and feelings of the child, his or her parents and any other person whom the agency considers relevant.

Secondly, children of 12 years and over should have automatic party status in court hearings. Children under 12 years may be given party status by the court if appropriate, and a guardian ad litem should be appointed in every case.

Thirdly, freeing for adoption should be abolished so that the court can consider the advantage to the child of a particular adoption. A placement order would be granted by the court before placement commenced and parental agreement to a particular placement would normally be obtained. The grounds for dispensing with parental agreement will be limited where the parent cannot be found or is incapable of giving agreement; or to a single test that will require that the court be satisfied that the advantage to the child of a new family significantly outweighs any other options that may be available, so justifying the overriding of the parents' wishes.

Fourthly, the report recognises that, in the case of step-parent adoptions, it should not be necessary for the birth parent involved to become an adoptive parent, and that there should be provision for such an order to be undone if the marriage ends.

There are also recommendations to extend the remit of the adoption contact register, allowing birth parents and other relatives to indicate a preference not be contacted. There should also be the facility to allow bona fide tracing agencies to locate interested parties seeking a link.

Openness in adoption is another feature of the report, although not, of course, a new concept. It can take many forms and should be seen generally as a move away from the closed and secretive process which has characterised adoption until recently. Openness may take the form of exchanges of information between adoptive families and birth families or contact between adopted children and members of their birth family—brothers and sisters or grandparents—not necessarily involving birth parents. Whether openness is appropriate in any individual case or what form it should take will, of course, depend on the needs of the child.

One point that I wish to stress to allay any unfounded fears is that it is certainly not envisaged that contact should be imposed on adoptive families. The arrangements must be handled in every case with sensitivity and skill. They require agreement by all parties well before an adoption order is made. Nobody involved in adoption, whether as part of the birth family or of the adoptive family, should feel threatened by the risk of unwelcome or unauthorised contact.

The report makes a number of important recommendations about inter-country adoption.

The origins of inter-country adoption date back to the post-war years, but its nature has changed. Originally, it was mainly a humanitarian initiative in response to catastrophe, designed to meet the needs of children displaced and suffering through war. More recently, inter-country adoption has developed more as a service for childless couples, although, of course, humanitarian instincts are still prevalent.

Its growing popularity stems in part from the decline in domestic adoption in many western countries in the past two decades as the number of babies available for adoption has decreased. In the United Kingdom this has been due in large measure to the greater availability of birth control, changed attitudes towards single mothers, and the more sympathetic social conditions which enable unmarried mothers to take responsibility themselves for the care of their children.

Communications have also played a part. Not many years ago the plight of children in countries overseas would have been largely unknown. Today, heart-rending pictures of deprived children are beamed straight into our living rooms from all around the world. As the world shrinks, we identify more with the difficulties of people in other countries and, with fewer babies available for adoption at home, prospective adopters naturally look further afield for children. This trend is likely to continue.

There are different and often strongly held views of inter-country adoption. For many childless people and for those who wish to add to their family, inter-country adoption seems to achieve two objectives: fulfilling their wish for a child, and meeting the need of deprived children elsewhere for a home. For others, inter-country adoption appears to be a form of humanitarian aid, rescuing children from abandonment and poverty.

There are people, however, who have serious reservations about inter-country adoption on grounds of principle, or practice, or both. There are practical concerns over the supervision of adoption arrangements in some countries and about children's ability to adapt to life in a very different culture. Underlying these reservations is a basic question: is it right that many arrangements for inter-country adoption should operate primarily as services to provide couples with children rather than to provide children with families—which, as I said earlier, is the purpose of adoption?

In some countries, despite great efforts to introduce safeguards and regulation, an unofficial traffic continues alongside the official services. Even where legislation in sending countries specifically requires that foreigners should not be allowed to adopt except where they have been found suitable by the authorities in their own country, the requirements are not always observed.

We should not underestimate the risks that official arrangements can mean for children. For a child to be taken to a foreign country only then to be rejected is very undesirable indeed. Similarly, it is unacceptable for parents who have been turned down by the authorities in their home country to try to beat the system by adopting from overseas. These risks are not a reason for preventing inter-country adoption altogether, but they underline the need for great care in its regulation and management at both the national and the international level.

When the report was published last month, there was some interest in the recommendation that bringing children into the United Kingdom without proper authority should be made a criminal offence. I can assure the House that this action would not be considered until any new legislation was in place and running smoothly.

National initiatives must fit into a wider international effort if we are to guarantee the well-being of children involved in inter-country adoption. Two important international instruments contain provisions about inter-country adoption. These are the 1986 United Nations declaration on social and legal principles relating to the protection and welfare of children, with special reference to foster placement and adoption nationally and internationally, and the 1989 United Nations convention on the rights of the child.

The declaration and the convention together spell out a number of key principles in relation to inter-country adoption. They are proving increasingly influential in shaping the development of Government policies and legislative reform in sending and receiving countries.

Perhaps the most encouraging development in inter-country adoption in recent years is the proposed international convention on inter-country adoption. It is being developed by a special commission set up in 1990 by the Hague conference on private international law and will meet again in May next year to discuss the draft convention. It aims to establish safeguards so that inter-country adoptions take place only when they are in the best interests of the child. It also aims to establish a system of co-operation among contracting states to ensure that these safeguards are respected.

In the United Kingdom we strongly endorse these aims. It is only through international co-operation, on the level of both policy and planning and on the case-by-case level, that inter-country adoption can truly meet the needs of individual children. I am glad to say that in the United Kingdom we already have in place the infrastructure of central authorities and authorised agencies which the proposed convention envisages for the proper regulation and strong central supervision of inter-country adoption.

Additionally, in recognition of the increasing interest in overseas adoption, the Department of Health awarded a grant to the Bridge child care consultancy earlier this year allowing it to host the overseas adoption helpline project. The helpline is intended to be an independent source of advice and information for families seeking to adopt from abroad as well as for professionals in the field. The helpline began operations on 11 May and its progress will be reviewed in the new year. The recommendations in the report reflect those international initiatives, and I commend them.

I will mention some aspects of adoption practice which are not covered directly by individual recommendations in the review but which are fundamental to any consideration of the whole subject. I recognise that one of the main reasons why some would-be adoptive parents attempt inter-country adoption outside the existing legal framework is their anger and frustration at what they see as the obstructive attitude of some local authorities.

I do not condone such attempts by prospective parents to short-circuit the system, but local authorities must understand that public confidence in the fairness of their policies is destroyed if adherence to fashionable or politically correct notions appears to influence their decisions more than consideration of the interests of the individual child.

Three aspects of adoption practice give rise to particular controversies. They are age, race and the position of single people. On the subject of age, the report does not include recommendations on an upper age limit for prospective adopters. Nor does present adoption law specify such a limit. In looking at an individual child with individual needs, the aim must always be the best possible environment for that child. In particular cases, that could mean older parents. Rigid and inflexible age limits have no place in modern adoption practice and should not be imposed by any local authorities.

Agencies generally follow the practice of placing babies with couples who are not much older than the age at which most people start a family. Because there are more people wishing to adopt healthy babies than there are babies needing families, there is an abundant choice of prospective parents, but we must not discount the real value which more mature parents can bring to parenting in terms of security, experience and general understanding.

I come to what has become known as the "same race placement" policy. The Government have no such policy, nor is one suggested in the review, because the starting point in arranging for family placement of a child from a minority ethnic group is that all issues concerning the child's needs and welfare must be considered.

Issues of race and culture are important but form only part of a wide range of considerations in determining the most suitable placement for a child. A guiding principle is that, all other things being equal, in many cases a placement with a family of similar ethnic origin is likely to meet a child's needs. There will be exceptions to that general approach, and guiding principles are valuable only insofar as they are applied with proper consideration for the circumstances of the individual child. The Department's guidance specifically points out that there may be circumstances in which placement with a family of different ethnic origin is the right and best choice for a particular child.

The third area of practice on which I wish to comment is adoption by single people. It is beyond question, in my view, that the interests of the vast majority of children will best be served by having a mother and a father. I therefore expect that in every case of a child seeking adoptive parents the authorities should make the most strenuous possible efforts to place that child with a married couple. However, there may be occasions where no suitable couple is available to adopt a child. When that occurs, I would not wish to use either the law or guidance to prohibit adoption by a single person. Indeed, adoption by a single person may for some children be their only route out of an institutional environment into a family home.

In choosing adoptive parents, adoption agencies must always remember that their duty is to serve and safeguard the best interests of the individual child. "Equal rights" and "gay rights" policies have no place whatsoever in adoption work. No one has a right to adopt a child. It is the duty of adoption agencies and the courts to provide the best adoptive parents for each child.

The Government have not yet decided whether to follow the review's line that the law should be silent on those issues. It may be that the principles of good practice should be enshrined either in primary or secondary legislation, and I shall be interested in the views of hon. Members on that point.

The review comprises a comprehensive and far-reaching view of the way forward for adoption in a fast-changing society. I hope that it will stimulate extensive debate, and I am pleased to commend it to the House.

7.4 pm

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

It is a privilege to make my maiden speech at the Dispatch Box on an issue of such fundamental importance as adoption. As the Minister will be aware, I had the honour to be closely involved with the Children Act 1989.

The review of adoption law is very much the unfinished business of the 1989 Act. It is a pleasure to see in her place my predecessor on the Opposition Front Bench who was responsible for matters concerning children, my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor), who served, as I did, in Standing Committee when that important measure was being discussed.

The Opposition welcome the publication of the report, and my hon. Friends and I look forward positively to contributing to the wide-ranging debate that is bound to take place on some of the often difficult and at times contentious issues to which the Minister referred. While we have reservations and concerns about a number of points —I shall refer to some of them—we believe that the overall direction of the report is to be generally welcomed.

I have always regretted that on most occasions social work practice comes under scrutiny in the House because of apparent failures. Indeed, the most recent deliberations in the Chamber concerning social work arose following the publication of reports on matters relating to the Orkneys and Fife. The usual tirade of abuse of social workers followed, and even The Observercarried an article suggesting that it might be no bad thing if social workers were "disbanded as a profession."

As some hon. Members may be aware, I must declare a degree of subjectivity on such matters because, in common with the Secretary of State—although we have precious little else in common—I spent many years in social work before entering Parliament.

There are few areas where the skills and successes of social work practice are more evident than in this country's adoption provisions. Sadly, but rightly, successful adoptions—they are the vast majority—do not make newspaper headlines or feature in our constituency postbags, but they are a quiet and conclusive demonstration of the fact that social workers have considerably more successes than their much publicised failures.

Having undertaken guardian ad litem work and the challenging task of vetting applicants for adoption, I can express a personal appreciation of the efforts of the inderdepartmental working group. Having many years later served as a local councillor on an adoption panel, I pay tribute to the fact that the group has clearly tried to get to grips with the way in which what might be termed the adoption environment has markedly changed in recent times.

Our adoption law must be reviewed to take account of a whole range of developments, some arising directly from the Children Act 1989. The fact that the welfare principle underpinning the Act is proposed for application to adoption legislation is to be welcomed. It is also entirely consistent to place positive emphasis on the child's needs in proceedings rather than concentrating on underlining parental failings, as has often been the case in the past.

The application of the welfare principle beyond just childhood into adult life reinforces the importance and possible implications of decisions that are taken during a child's or young person's early years. The 1989 Act introduced a whole range of important new options available to the child, the family and other interested parties, the social services and the courts. It is right that consideration should be given to the possible relevance of those when a court is considering an application for a placement or adoption order. The availability of the widest possible range of alternatives enables the court to have the opportunity to consider the most appropriate response to the needs of a child or young person.

I stress "young person" because, as the review makes clear, we are now more than ever concerned with the consideration of possible adoption arrangements for an older child or young person. It is in a situation such as that that those concerned with making the best possible arrangements for the child often face the most difficult decisions in determining whether links with the natural family should be totally severed.

I was recently involved with a constituency case in which a child's grandmother, probably the most stable influence in the birth family, faced total loss of contact with the child, having given love and care for the first eight years of the child's life. Such situations are not infrequent and are particularly traumatic for all concerned, the child in particular. The wider range of possible options arising as a result of the 1989 Act, picked up by the interdepartmental working group, offers some hope for the better resolution of similar situations, and we welcome that fact. The proposals for a new order to be available to step-parents is, similarly, an important recognition of the realities of our times.

On the review's proposals for agreement to an adoption order, although it rightly presumes that the child's wishes and feelings should be taken into account at all times, the proposal that a child of 12 years of age or more should be able to prevent the granting of an adoption order by withholding his or her agreement raises important questions.

The Opposition have no objection to what is proposed but are concerned about whether a specific age can realistically be prescribed in that way. It might be suggested that, with some children, 12 is too young an age for such a decision or indeed for party status. I personally feel that 10 may have been more appropriate, giving some consistency with the age at which criminal law suggests a minor has achieved some maturity. But I concede that different children have different levels of maturity and we need to question whether it is necessary to put forward a specific age when it will inevitably be somewhat arbitrary.

We do, however, welcome the proposals for clarifying provisions for parental agreements and simplifying grounds for dispensing with parental consent. Frankly, our past practices in that respect, both in adoption and the assumption of parental rights, have left a good deal to be desired and the simplifications suggested are a positive step. Just as the Children Act 1989 reinforced not just the rights of the child but also those of the natural family, it is right that in any changes to adoption law the voice of the birth family is strengthened, especially in contested cases.

I am aware of the fact that it has been suggested that if the report's recommendations on consultation with birth parents and pre-placement hearings are introduced, the number of contested cases is likely to fall significantly. Bearing in mind the fact that, especially with the abolition of freeing, agencies would have to find placements that are, in most instances, consistent with the wishes of the child and birth family, the reduction in contested cases should be a logical outcome.

We wish to support in particular the proposal that any new legal provisions should underline a child's right to know that he or she is adopted. Since the 1975 Act, significant numbers of those who have in the past been adopted have taken advantage of their right to learn about their origins once they reach the age of 18. But it must be said that many of them have struggled to get what is theirs by right and perhaps the review group could have given more thought to how we may in future reduce some of the difficulties they so often face.

Some time ago, I was contacted by a 51-year-old man, whom I have known personally and well for some 25 years. He came to me as his Member of Parliament over the difficulties that he was having in tracing his natural family. Although he was always reticent about discussing his past, I had no idea that he had been abandoned by his mother as a baby and subsequently adopted by a family who subjected him to both physical and sexual abuse.

My role became one that should not have been necessary—of lobbying various local authorities and Government Departments to get them to take seriously that man's desire and right to know of his background. Clearly, many of those bodies felt that they had more important priorities than assisting him with his inquiries. He tells his own story in a letter which he sent me recently setting out how he first tried to trace his natural mother 25 years ago but was refused assistance by various charities, which felt that it was ridiculous for someone of his age to be worrying about the facts of his birth or natural mother.

He goes on to say: I got on with my life until more recently. A number of television programmes 3 or 4 years ago showed that it was possible for adoptees and mothers to find each other. I started again. I advertised extensively for my mother in newspapers and ITV Oracle, etc, without response. A very kind lady helped me considerably by researching through natural birth registers of which there were microfilm copies at her local library in Lancashire. I discovered North Yorkshire Social Services had lost my adoption file. Harrogate Magistrates Court where I was adopted had also, but found it accidentally when they moved. I got access to their file after permission was granted by the OPECS and saw the childcare report and mother's notes already referred to. With your help and also pressure from Wakefield adoption office, it was finally possible to discover from the DHSS that my mother was dead but nothing more. I visited London, got her death certificate from St. Catherine's House and a copy of her probate to trace a relative. It was only when I visited Harrogate Magistrates Court that I made the first discovery that I had a brother. On the way home, I nearly broke down, and even now, I try not to think too hard about him. He died a few years before mother, aged 46 and unmarried. I never knew about him, that I had a peer, an older brother with whom I could have shared some life and happiness, and it is now too late". If that man had received the proper help to which he was entitled, it might not have been too late. He concludes his letter by saying: We get virtually no official help, just as we did not when taken as children into whatever situation. Official records are largely denied to us, particularly the DHSS. It is a struggle of some magnitude in trying to get birth information and follow up contact with natural parents and relatives. And it does seem strange to me that adoption and illegitimacy does still bear some stigma. Discussion with friends is extremely difficult, no matter how well they like me. And they cannot understand the desire for knowledge of my natural family. And I am now expected to remain silent as the `facts' are known at last". Having traced my family history back to the 1700s, I fully understand the desire to find one's roots and I am sure other hon. Members also appreciate that point. Our task is to ensure that the various official agencies also appreciate that point and have some understanding of the need to give proper priority to dealing sensitively and carefully with the kind of inquiries that my constituent has understandably had cause to make.

It is perhaps appropriate at this stage to refer to the review group's proposals on inter-country adoptions. I know that their deliberations were at least partly prompted by the situation in Romania. Through my wife's involvement in a charity providing children's homes in Romania, I visited that country just over a year ago. I saw some very moving scenes that will remain with me all my life. I met a number of people who spoke to me in detail of the concern, at that stage within Romania, about the removal of children from institutional care, supposedly for foreign adoption, where the children were known in certain instances to have ended up in western European countries and America involved in organised prostitution.

I am certain that the vast majority of individuals from this country who have attempted to adopt Romanian children have done so for the best of reasons. I have met people with an understandable humanitarian concern, to which the Minister referred, to offer such children the opportunity of better material circumstances, love and care.

I have talked to people who feel that the Secretary of State's initial response to that issue was insensitive and wrong. Despite her treatment of me during Department of Health questions earlier this week, I must make it clear that I think that her response to the initial attempts to adopt Romanian children was broadly correct. Similarly, the working party proposals on inter-country adoption are also broadly in the right direction.

When I went to Romania I learned some important lessons on that issue. Perhaps the main one was that, far from many of those children being orphaned and unwanted, vast numbers of them had families who wanted them but were prevented from caring for them by a basic lack of resources to feed, clothe and house them. Although I do not doubt that adoption arrangements can be made within or outside that country to the benefit of some of those children, I sincerely believe that, if we are to offer humanitarian assistance, the most effective means is not by moving the children to other countries and other cultures but by enabling their own families to have the wherewithal to raise them properly in their own homes, in their own communities, in their own country and culture.

Certain lessons might also be applied in Britain. Having had the experience of receiving into care a total number of children that must have reached three figures, and having seen a significant proportion of that group subsequently adopted, similar issues of poverty and bad housing are not infrequently linked here with the eventual use of adoption procedures.

It is a simple fact that the majority of children entering care in Britain come from the very poorest sections of the community and are more likely to have had parents who were unemployed and to have endured homelessness or bad housing. Some of those children are ultimately adopted. I know from personal experience that the birth parents in such circumstances often become resigned to the fact that their children would be better fed, clothed and housed if adopted.

Just as it is wrong for Romanian children to lose their families in such circumstances, it is also wrong that we witness the same process, albeit to a much lesser extent, in Britain today. It is highly appropriate that discussion of such issues should follow on directly from the Chancellor's autumn statement, which is another significant reminder of the processes whereby the Conservative Government have consistently, year by year, plunged more and more children and families into homelessness, poverty and desperation.

There was a political consensus on the Children Act 1989, and there may be a political consensus on many of the provisions contained in the adoption review. However, there is no consensus on many of the related issues. For example, there is no consensus on the gross inequality in treatment of people who suffer from infertility. It is wrong that, in some districts of Britain, people are denied treatments that are available to others elsewhere. Many of the people who are denied treatment regard the adoption process as their only option. There is no consensus on the reasons for family breakdown and receptions into care. The Opposition answer is not simply one of adjusting child care legislation. We know that there is much more to do —we must tackle poverty and low pay, mass unemployment, homelessness and bad housing. The review deals with the consequences, not the causes.

We concede, in a way that the Government never do, that the implementation of such proposals will place significant new demands on local authorities and adoption agencies. We recognise that such changes and improvements require proper resources. We also appreciate that the development of new skills requires the provision of appropriate training. Let us be in no doubt that any move towards many of the proposed changes contained in the report will add significantly to the workload of all the agencies involved.

We are grateful for the opportunity to debate the overall direction of the report. It is also helpful to learn something of the Government's thinking on the matter and, particularly, to gain some clarification of the Minister's personal position. On 29 October, Social Work Today magazine stated: the Minister's obvious lack of interest in adoption law reform—apart of course from his conviction that you need to be heterosexual and married (a view not apparently shared by the Review's authors)—is all the more unfortunate because of the care and courage that has gone into the Review". The Opposition welcome the report's publication. We feel that there should be the widest possible consultation and debate on its proposals, with an extension of the limited consultation period beyond the end of the December. We commend those involved in the review group for their efforts and hope that the Government will, in due course, grasp the nettle and bring forward legislative proposals for the important reforms that are so clearly needed.

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

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate held on a busy day, after a welcome autumn statement which contained many provisions for social security and carers.

As my hon. Friend the Minister said, many of the children adopted today are children with special needs. It is most important that there should be ample provision to help parents whose adopted handicapped children may make considerable demands on them. I was pleased to note that the autumn statement contained additional provision for those in receipt of invalid care allowance so that there will be a larger earnings disregard. That means that the parents will be able to take on other jobs as well as their caring duties in the home.

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) and congratulate him on his excellent maiden speech from the Dispatch Box. He is well known in the House for his interest in personal social services. I was glad to hear him welcome this important Government report. I have only just had an opportunity to read most of the report and would still like to study it in more detail. It is a comprehensive report on the subject, and a welcome study of many aspects of inter-country adoption.

My own interest in adoption arose in 1983 when my wife and I initially fostered, and then adopted, a handicapped child. I know that the arrangements need streamlining. My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned the need to streamline them, but much more needs to be done. Local authorities are not the most efficient organisations and it can take some time for would-be adoptive couples to receive the necessary home studies and approvals.

My wife and I had to attend a considerable number of interviews and answer questions. When it was realised that my job as a Conservative Member of Parliament was in a marginal seat, I was termed as someone with an insecure occupation—a factor that can create potential difficulties. When it was discovered that our children got into bed with us on a Sunday morning, that almost finished our hopes. I know that social workers do not have an easy job, but I press on my hon. Friend the need to streamline the arrangements—a matter that forms the basis of my speech.

I agree with what my hon. Friend said about the need for children to be adopted, generally, by a normal family. I also agree with him that in some cases a single parent can make an outstanding adoptive parent. If my hon. Friend has the opportunity to visit my constituency, I hope that he can meet an excellent lady called Annie Gibson. She is a widow, but that did not prevent her from adopting an extremely handicapped child, Trevor, from the Elizabeth Ashmore home for handicapped children in Bolton. She lost her husband, a haemophiliac, when he became infected with AIDS through a blood transfusion and died. Annie wanted to have a caring role in life and decided to adopt Trevor. As a single parent, she had to go through all the hoops and await a number of committee meetings before she was accepted.

The local authority committee structure is not one of the best ways to make decisions. When my wife and I were finally approved as adoptive parents, our phone did not stop ringing. We were being asked to adopt almost every handicapped child in the district—for up to about 100 miles away—who was looking for a home. Committees tend to wait for someone to make a decision, and when that finally happens, want to climb on the bandwagon.

Annie Gibson is an outstanding example of how a single parent can provide the most loving care for a child who is seriously multiply and physically handicapped. If we study that case we reach certain conclusions. If a single parent can be an ideal adoptive parent—as Annie is—who she or he is living with is secondary. We need not pursue further the rare examples of gay or lesbian couples, but should consider each case in the light of its circumstances to see whether the requirements of the individual child are fully met by the proposed adoption arrangements. We should not be too dogmatic about the circumstances of the entire household into which the child is to be placed. The child's circumstances must come first—that is also true when a single parent is involved.

One of my first contacts with inter-country adoption was in Hong Kong. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Minister has visited Hong Kong recently or is to go there, but if he does I strongly recommend that he visits the Home of Loving Faithfulness. It is a remarkable institution that exists to care for severely handicapped Chinese children and find homes for them. The Chinese culture does not tend to favour the adoption of children, let alone handicapped children. The Home of Loving Faithfulness in Hong Kong has found parents all over the world for severely handicapped Chinese children. It is a classic example of how inter-country adoption can be used to find a loving home for children with no prospect of finding a home in their immediate environment.

The United Nations declaration is absolutely right to state that we should first try to keep children with their own families and, if that is not possible, to find adoptive homes in their own countries. If that cannot be done, one should look further abroad. I am concerned that the tone of part of the report is too parochial, mainly because it is written by officials who have a duty to look after British children. Those who wrote the document had no duty to look after Romanian children or those from anywhere else in the world and were bound to consider their own requirements. That is one of the problems encountered with local authorities. Although my hon. Friend thinks that local authorities should be able to carry out the job, they can be extremely parochial and consider that the only children who should be adopted are those on their own register, and parents who want to adopt other children have something wrong with them.

I ask my hon. Friend to adopt a broader perspective. Perhaps politicians have a better understanding of the motives of people who want to adopt, and perhaps the public can help officials to understand their wider duty. I am sure that my hon. Friend will do that well; I know that his predecessor did it extremely well.

This issue is all about love, a word that does not appear in the document, which is full of rules and regulations. For instance, paragraph 47.1 states: People who wish to offer a child a home and who are assessed as suitable to adopt a child from overseas should be enabled to do so. That offers no encouragement to anyone to do so. The document continues: We consider that the way forward lies in the development of a system which allows intercountry adoption to take place". The spirit of the report seems to be one of tolerance, not one of recognition of a worldwide problem which could be solved by finding homes for children who would not otherwise have a satisfactory future.

I was interested to hear that the hon. Member for Wakefield visited Romania last year. I was there earlier this year and I visited a home for irrecuperable children. I also visited an institution to which those children were sent when they reached the age of 16. The orphanage that I visited was called Ionaseni. I also went to see an adult psychiatric institution to which children are sent. It is called Podriga, and it is a frightful place. One would not keep animals in the conditions imposed on those people. It was supposed to be a hospital, but there was no doctor. My daughter Sophie, who worked in Romania, saw patients dead in their beds at Podriga, where there was no running water, where the toilets were all blocked and absolute chaos reigned. It is terrible to think of children being abandoned to that sort of future.

We are talking about relatively small numbers of children being adopted. If children from other countries can be adopted by people in this country, subject to proper safeguards, that will offer an example to Romanian people and to people in other countries of what they too could be doing. We should see inter-country adoption as just part of the solution—a way of offering an example to others of what should be done, and how it should be done. It should certainly not be regarded as an overall solution—that would never be right. Equally, it would be a great mistake to close down this option.

I do not know what is going on in Romania. I am not aware of any children having been adopted since the Romanian adoption committee was set up. The last letter that I received from the Department of Health suggested that five cases were under consideration. Perhaps some of them have come through now, but it is tragic that the committee has effectively stopped all further adoptions from Romania.

I am not sure whether the Minister has seen the letter that I wrote to the Home Secretary asking him to reconsider the case of the Luffs. This tragic case concerns two Romanian children, Marcel and Florina, who have been waiting to be adopted for two years. I cannot imagine how we can claim that this country's arrangements serve the interests of those children. The whole episode is a terrible blunder. The doctor at the Department of Health who signed the certificate was under the impression that someone else would adopt the children if he signed a certificate saying that it would not be suitable if the Luffs adopted them. If my hon. Friend can rescue these two children from being strangled by British red tape, he will have done mankind a great service. I hope that it is not too late for him to reconsider that difficult case.

An overseas adoption helpline has been set up to advise people interested in inter-country adoption. I had asked for such a facility for some time, and I am pleased at the progress that has been made, but I am not sure what is happening at the helpline now. I do not think that it has had any public launch—I have seen nothing about it, nor have I had an opportunity to visit it. I do not know whether any other hon. Member has had a chance to see the helpline in action, but it certainly seems to be hiding its light under a bushel.

We need a specialist inter-country adoption agency. Not all local authorities have the skills or time to be able to attend to the needs of those who are adopting from abroad. We need more than a helpline; we need a full-blown inter-country adoption agency. I do not know whether it could be developed from one of our voluntary agencies, but I ask my hon. Friend to help bring it about. We do not have such an agency so far. Perhaps voluntary agencies are too tied up with the local authorities with which they have to work closely to be able to do the job.

One aspect of the report that I do not fully understand concerns whether there will be appeals. A complaints procedure is mentioned in part of the report. If local authorities are to have a virtual monopoly, and if they then create problems, there must be good arrangements for appeals by would-be adopters if they find that they are not receiving the help from their local authorities that they should.

Couples have contacted me to say that they might have to move home so as to live in the area of an authority that will give them more help. The campaign for inter-country adoption, of which I am a founding member, wrote to the Minister's predecessor in March, following the consultation paper. The letter, sent on 12 March, gives examples of the sorts of difficulties that occur with some local authorities. Authorities such as Mid Glamorgan, Islington, Hampshire and Ealing did not approve of inter-country adoption and were generally obstructive to people living in their areas who wanted to adopt. This is just not good enough. If the Government's policy is to leave the matter to local authorities, they must be obliged to deal with it properly.

A more positive solution would be to allow would-be adopters to use an alternative channel. If they are blocked by their local authority then they should be able to go through such a channel, and that in turn would stimulate the local authority to give them better service in the first place and, instead of being obstructive, to advise them to use the alternative channel—

Mr. Hinchliffe

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some of the local authorities to which he has referred are not dogmatically opposed to inter-country adoption but are so overstretched, in terms of resources and staff, that they find it impossible to meet their statutory duties to the children even of this country? I suspect that many of the responses of local authorities stem from the fact that they feel that it is beyond them to undertake the work expected of them—to evaluate applications for inter-country adoption.

Mr. Thurnham

To some extent, that is true. Local authorities are all under pressure. They have to implement the Children Act 1989. They have a shortage of skills in the first place, and all their time, money and skills are involved in their own responsibilities. They have no responsibility for children in Romania, Bulgaria, Thailand or Sri Lanka, so they are bound to have difficulties giving priority to would-be adoptive couples. Yet such couples are entitled to such priority, given that the public at large believe that such adoption is commendable and humanitarian.

So there is a conflict, and that is why we need an alternative channel to enable would-be adoptive couples who do not get the service to which they are entitled to go about the problem in a different way. Unless such people get help from their Member of Parliament, they can be left in queues and then be faced with these ridiculous restrictions—they are too old if they are over 35, or they may smoke, or have a dog, and hence not be allowed to adopt. Without the alternative channel that I propose, people will not be able to adopt children whose futures will otherwise be at best precarious and in the long term utterly bleak.

I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would tell us a little more about how the helpline is supposed to work. Will it have a public launch? Will it advertise its services? It is not clear how active it is at present. I know that some money has been provided, and that is welcome, but it is important that the overseas adoption helpline work closely with others who are active in the field and build a constructive relationship with them.

The campaign group feels that the report does not give nearly enough help and encouragement to would-be adopters. I agree: would-be adopters should be regarded not as a nuisance, but as people who can help to bring about more adoptions generally. One of the tragedies of an excessively parochial attitude is the way in which it chokes off the idea of adoption as a whole. Some 5,000 severely handicapped children are currently in institutional care in the United Kingdom and I believe that they would be looked after much better if they enjoyed the loving care of a family.

People need to be encouraged to provide that loving care. Perhaps they can be encouraged by the example of an acquaintance who has been to Romania and adopted a handicapped child from that country: that may provide the stimulus for them to adopt a British handicapped child. Similarly, people living abroad may have connections with this country, and, on a visit, may find out about handicapped British children who would benefit from adoption. Perhaps they will take those children back to Canada, Australia or wherever they live. Inter-country adoption can be a two-way thing; it should not be seen simply as a service for childless couples in Britain.

I recommend a book called "The Story of Michael", by Deborah Fowler. It describes how a couple—not a childless couple—adopted a child from Romania. Inter-country adoption should be seen first and foremost as an act of love between the child and his adopted family. I believe that the public would support my hon. Friend the Minister if he ensured that that was made possible, arid that, where local authorities could not provide the necessary service, others could.

I was disturbed to hear talk of criminal sanctions. Obviously, a couple who arrive at an airport with a child will present the authorities with a dilemma; but surely, rather than talking of criminal sanctions, we should recommend an improvement in the current arrangements. We need at least one specialist inter-country adoption agency, and I hope that my hon. Friend will encourage the establishment of such an agency.

I thank my hon. Friend for providing an opportunity for us to debate the report, and I hope that we shall have further opportunities to discuss the whole subject further.

7.42 pm
Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) on the balanced way in which he presented his arguments. I also congratulate the Minister on his presentation of the report, and the working committee on its work: it has touched on almost every aspect of adoption and fostering that is currently being discussed.

When the Minister said that he thought it far better for children to be adopted by married couples, I thought that I was going to fall out with him; however, he enabled me not to have a guilty conscience by adding that, in certain circumstances, single people could make successful parents. Despite all that has happened over the past 20 years, I feel that I was a reasonably successful single parent —certainly no less successful than many married parents.. regardless of whether their children are adopted.

I warmly support what the Minister has said throughout our discussion of the issue. On one occasion I wrote to him, pointing out that we were talking about trying to give children suitable families rather than the other way around. I believe that much of the discussion of, in particular, inter-country adoption has assumed the reverse.

When—many years ago—I first became interested in adoption, the subject was shrouded in secrecy. In many families an adopted child became a secret that was not discussed very much, because those who could not produce their own children were stigmatised to a certain extent. People went to enormous lengths to hide the fact that they had adopted a child, and—as we have heard—it was a long time before adopted children's right to know their background and origins was made public.

I remember being involved in discussions which, even then, I thought rather strange, about the matching of babies to their adoptive parents. A fair-haired child would be sought for a fair-haired parent, so that no one would know that the child was adopted. I also remember arguing about class background. Nowadays we all talk about the classless society, but things were different then. In those days, it was always the father who was the college professor and the mother who was the parlourmaid. The person with whom I was arguing suggested that a fairly intelligent family should be sought for a child with such a father—which, of course, assumes that the child would take on the characteristics of its father. Personally, I am sceptical about the whole question of heredity. I asked, "What about social mobility? After all, the builder of today can be the college professor of tomorrow; things are changing." That was not thought very relevant.

Given the history of adoption in this country, it is small wonder that many adopted children grew up unaware of their background, which later came as a terrible shock to them. Perhaps even worse, others grew up with a private shame about their origins, feeling that they had been put up for adoption only because they had not been wanted or were unworthy in some way. We have moved a long way since then; we are now embarked on a fresh review of adoption law, which—as the Minister and others have pointed out—is very timely.

The last 20 years have seen substantial—indeed, dramatic—social change, in this country and throughout the world. That change has shown itself in a variety of ways. There has been a rise in the number of one-parent families; increasing economic and social pressures, leading to family breakdowns; an increasing emphasis on the placement of older children, children with special needs and children who have been in long-term care; and growing involvement with children from other countries. The report also takes on board the question of divorce, remarriage and step-children, and I welcome that too. I consider it important for the House, in changing adoption and fostering law, to keep up to date with the rapid changes that have taken place, even in my time in the House.

The report has a go at almost every aspect of the subject that we have discussed; and those aspects will continue to be discussed. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield, I wish that there were a longer consultation period, because getting together people and organisations takes time.

We would all agree that any review of adoption law must be firmly anchored in a commitment to making children's rights a reality, not just an empty slogan. If their rights and interests are paramount, we must provide legislative structures to observe that. Children's rights have been enshrined in a United Nations convention-the right to a decent standard of living, the right to a family, the right to an identity, the right to education, the right to protection from violence and exploitation, and other rights. Today, we are really asking how well current adoption practice matches that modest checklist, and how we can make the system more responsive, more accessible and in children's best interests.

As the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) well knows, I have never been a strong supporter of inter-country adoption. I have always felt that it should be a last resort, except in the case of children whose families are already here. When I represented Slough, I dealt with families who were trying to adopt children from their countries of origin and finding it extremely difficult to do so. By and large, however, I believe that it is wrong to encourage a country to export its children.

As others have said, we should be helping countries to tackle the problems of poverty and ignorance about contraception which force parents to part with their children. Had I ever become an Aid Minister, I should have wanted many more aid projects to be directed to the welfare of children, and the rescue of children who are abandoned and have little hope of a future of any kind—not just in Romania but in Ethiopia, in Mozambique, throughout the African continent and throughout Latin America

. The hon. Member for Bolton, North-East said that he felt that the Minister had grudgingly accepted inter-country adoption. I agree with the Minister about that. It is a complex process that is open to tremendous abuse. I have been appalled by how easily many people have acquired children from other parts of the world. It is not, in my view, a question of culture. I do not believe that children who are two or three months old, or even a little older, have a particular culture. One acquires the culture of wherever it is that one lives. The committee's report states that this is a child protection argument. I am glad that the Government have said that adoption procedures that involve children from other countries must be as rigorous as those that are applied here.

To those children from abroad who have come to this country, I say that I wish them well. Many of them will triumph and blossom in an atmosphere that it would be impossible to find in their country of origin. If the international community ensured that resources, aid and help were given to the families of those children, this would not happen. The fact is that 98 per cent. of Romanian "orphans" have parents. Disgraceful pressures were put on many people to hand over their children. They were given no alternative.

Many hon. Members know of the work of the Migrant Children's Trust. From the 1930s until the 1960s, children were shipped out from this country to Canada and Australia. Many of them have now asked the Migrant Children's Trust to trace their families. In many cases it has been found that those children had parents or relatives and that they were not eligible for adoption. However, they were sent abroad because it was felt that that would be better for them. A book entitled "Children of the Empire" deals with that issue.

When the question of inter-country adoption was raised I was reminded of that book. I think in particular of a woman who put her child in care in the 1940s or 1950s because she had to go into hospital for an operation. She was very poor. There was no family support. When she left hospital she found that her child had been shipped out of this country. She knew nothing of its whereabouts until many years later. The reunion of some of these people, who are now in late middle age, makes me think that at that time we did not do enough to find out what alternatives were available.

That applies equally to children from other countries that families here seek to adopt. We cannot allow children to be adopted on the basis that those people, having been rejected as possible adopters of children in this country, are good enough for children from abroad because they are second-hand children, or words to that effect. A report was published this week on what is taking place in the Philippines, where there is sexual exploitation of children and the buying and selling of children. Unless there are strict laws regarding international adoption, we shall be left wide open to international trafficking in children. Therefore, I welcome what has been said about the application of rigorous procedures for the adoption of children from abroad.

Reference has been made to the age of adoptive parents. As a result of fertility tests, people can be approaching the age of 40 before they are finally told that they cannot have children, or that it is too late for a woman to have a child because of the fear of complications. In many of those instances, they do not qualify to adopt children because they are over the age limit. That is wrong. Older parents have a great deal to offer children. If a survey were made of the successful upbringing of children—though the older I grow and the more I know about children, the fewer the theories I have about their upbringing—I think that we should find that the age of those bringing up children makes no great difference to the success rate.

When families break up nowadays, the grandparents are often fairly young. It is important, therefore, not to rule out by statute the opportunity for grandparents to adopt their grandchildren when family life breaks down. Every case has to be considered on its merits, but age is just one factor in the application of the adoption rules. There ought not to be a cut-off point, resulting in people over a certain age not even being considered suitable to adopt children. They can successfully bring up older children, in particular. One reads that in future women of 60 will be able to have children, so we have to look at the question in a different way.

As for the racial question, which is dealt with in the report, when children from different ethnic backgrounds are placed with families it is important to consider matching, but matching is only one factor. When children are successfully fostered by people of a different ethnic background, it can do great damage if they are then moved from those families, on that one argument alone. When I have taken up this issue I have been told by local authorities that that was not the only reason for the move; there were all sorts of other reasons.

I agree about matching, for all sorts of fairly obvious reasons. However, a loving home is even more important, so long as we do not lose sight of the question of ethnic identity and so long as contacts are made with people of the same ethnic origin as the child. It is far better for a child to be in such a home than to have to linger in a children's home waiting for the right placement, or to be moved from foster home to foster home.

Short-term placements are sometimes made. We understand why, but they become long-term placements. Two or three years later, application is made to adopt a child but it is turned down on the ground that it is a short-term placement. Children are resilient, but they need stability and to be able to identify with the people with whom they live. What the report says about that is very important.

Reference has been made to single parents. Relatives of a single parent may want to adopt a child after a family tragedy. Apart from those people, there are others who are unmarried who would make ideal parents. We cannot just rule out one category of people and say that in no circumstances can they adopt children.

Open adoption is a controversial question and will continue to be controversial. There is a great deal to be said for an adopted child keeping in contact with its birth family. Many children have remained in care or have been moved from foster home to foster home because the birth parent found it too difficult to let go. The local authority may believe that eventually it will be possible to reunite the child with the family, but in many cases family circumstances do not improve and reunion is impossible. If a child is not provided with stability, many of the social inadequacies—I emphasise social inadequacies because I do not believe in inherited inadequacies—will be passed on to the child. Insecurity breeds insecurity.

If we can meet the needs of older children in particular for identity and stability and yet allow a relationship with the birth parent to continue, we shall be able to free certain children for adoption and give them an environment in which they can flourish without them feeling that they have deserted their own parents. That is often what older children feel, or they feel that they are being forced to make a choice.

Reference is made in the report to the age of 12. I think that it could be lowered. If a child were told, "Yes, you can be adopted by these people who love you and with whom you live, but you can see your own mother or your own father," I think that the child would consent, but not if told that it must be a clean break and that there could be no contact with the parents. We must consider different types of adoption and guardianship.

I welcome the report. As I said at the beginning of my speech, it deals with most of the aspects of fostering and adoption that are under discussion. Children should be consulted as early as possible on how they see their future. That is impossible with very young children, but it is possible with older children.

Every hon. Member has said that we are talking about giving a child an identity and a future. That identity, future and security must always rest on what is in the child's best interests and not on what a family or person might want because they have been deprived of a child. Nobody has the right to a child. It is important that the Government rightly said where they stand on inter-country adoption. We must not allow the feeling to grow that children from other countries, who may be suffering enormously, are second-class and can therefore have adoptive parents whom our society may have said are not suitable. We cannot allow that to happen. I should like us to allocate more resources to ensuring that children stay in their own country rather than having their future exported.

8 pm

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South)

I could say that I have a lifetime's experience of the issue because I was born into a family that had experienced adoption and therefore have an adoptive sibling. I followed that by becoming an adoptive parent, and more recently I have been a member of an adoption panel. In a sense, I have some practical experience and, through my experience, an ability to compare what the law permitted in the 1930s with what it required in the 1960s and how it operated in the 1990s.

I welcome the document because, like other hon. Members, I believe that it tackles all the issues. It will strengthen and tighten legislation and therefore will improve practice. I hope that the consultation period will not be too rigid because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), I believe that it is important to get a response from all the agencies involved in the issue. After the consultation period, I hope that it will not be long before the Government legislate.

The basic principle of the document—the centrality of the welfare of the child—is important and correct. The document must attempt to apply the same principle across the board. It is important to follow the same principles for inter-country adoptions as we follow here. It is right to view with scepticism what have often seemed a little like DIY adoptions, because we must ensure that the welfare of the child is paramount and that those who adopt are people who, in any circumstances, would be accepted as adoptive parents.

The document rightly considers the law as it applies to all the parties concerned. It is an improvement to make provision for a social worker to act with the natural parents. I am sure that that will be welcomed in contested adoptions, but it must be said that it will be quite a costly proposal. It is estimated that between 50 and 80 families a year in Leeds would seek that additional social work input, which will be costly to the authority.

It is important to consider the views of relatives, primarily grandparents and siblings, and children. It is difficult to define an age rigidly, but I should prefer the principle that the views of children are taken into account to the extent that they are able to participate because it recognises the different development of children at a given physical age and that we should seek the views of children. It should be part of children's rights, where they can understand, that they should take part in a decision affecting their parentage.

One of my sadder duties as chair of social services in Leeds was to take part in what might be described as the opposite of that process, because until the implementation of the Children Act 1989 the termination of access between parents and children was decided by a panel of elected members. Over a two-year period, I saw many parents because it was my job to talk to them and convey the views of the panel. The only time that children were consulted was when I specifically asked to meet them, and that was not possible often. The evidence of children's views will have to be made very clear.

The document deals with the child's right to know and sets guidelines for the life story that social workers will have prepared. At all stages in their development, children should have as much knowledge of their background as it is possible for them to understand. It is a good recommendation that local authorities should have a duty to contact the child when he or she reaches 16 and ensure that the information has been passed on. That important duty will have to be handled sensitively. Again, sometimes it will be quite a costly operation, and we must consider how far back authorities can go, because the further back they go the higher the cost to local authorities.

I note that paragraph 23 talks of more flexibility in the membership of adoption panels and the difficulties that panels sometimes encounter in making a quorum. I certainly experienced that. As chair of social services with other duties, I often created a bit of a problem. We should be more flexible, but we should seek not additional members but that every panel member has an alternate member. An adoption panel must offer some continuity and, if possible, training. It is important that the documents that are placed before it are treated with the utmost confidentiality. Therefore, in changing the rigidity of the present arrangements, alternate members must be available to maintain continuity and confidentiality.

I appreciated the comments of the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) and of my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) about the need to achieve flexibility in adoption by single parents. In practice, the adoption panel that I was part of mainly placed or matched children with couples who were married. However, it sometimes placed children with single parents after it had examined all the evidence and was sure that it was the best placement for the child. We witnessed some placements to gay or lesbian couples. One would not have a policy of seeking such adoptions. However, in some circumstances, with particular children and in view of the relationships that they have developed with others, it is logical to say that such a placement is best for them. Therefore, although we set down what may be perhaps the normal pattern of adoption, we must always be prepared to be flexible.

The matter of race applies to inter-country adoptions. As other hon. Members have said, we must be careful about breaking a child from its cultural background and inheritance. If we cross such boundaries, we must take into account the age and circumstances of the child. Clearly, in many adoption cases the child was originally a foster placement. Frequently, a foster placement develops into the sort of bonding that leads to it being the logical permanent placement for a child. That may occur across the difference in ethnic backgrounds. In some cases the relationships and the bonding that exist become more important than the cultural difference.

Some anxiety has been expressed about the new court arrangements and court time. The adoption panel of which I was a member was worried about the length of time that it sometimes took between a placement being made and an adoption taking place. We must beware of increasing the number of court appearances which each adoption involves. We do not want to make the process longer than is necessary. Also, the length of the process adds to the costs. Obviously, additional court appearances increase the amount of social work time required, and extend the work and role of the guardian ad litem. The changes must be properly funded so we must examine the costs.

Adoption law is an important matter. I hope that the changes recommended in the report will be introduced in legislation. However, if social services departments are to undertake the additional work involved, we must make an accurate assessment of the costs which will be incurred. We must ensure that the authorities have sufficient funds to do the job.

I welcome the report. It offers the promise of security and happiness for more children. That is something to which we are all committed.

8.12 pm
Ms. Ann Coffey (Stockport)

It gives me much pleasure to be involved in this debate tonight because, before I was elected in April, I worked in the adoption service. I am glad to be part of the initial consultation process rather than in the position that I was in last year. The consultation process was so short that the document came to us for consultation two days before it was due back at the Department of Health. As other hon. Members have done, I urge the Government to extend the consultation process; otherwise the consultation document may end up on the director's desk without percolating down to those who are involved in practice and nothing meaningful will come back from the consultation material which is sent out.

Adoption has certainly changed over the years. From experience, I should say that most local authorities now place children between the ages of two and eight, sometimes singly and sometimes with brothers and sisters. Sometimes the children have additional special handicaps, and sometimes the children are of a different race from the adoptive parents. The majority of children who are placed for adoption are between two and eight.

Children placed by local authorities are a difficult group because, unfortunately, they may be damaged at an early age and that damage is sometimes irrevocable. Perhaps the Minister will reflect on the fact that, sadly, despite our enormous technological and scientific advances, we still do not have in Britain the skills to help small, damaged children overcome initial emotional distress. It would be helpful to put resources into finding a way to help them. Adoptive families who have taken on the care of those children find that they face difficult years ahead, often without help. We do not have the knowledge or skills to help the child and the family. As everyone who has been involved in adoption work knows, love is not enough. Love gives a base, but sometimes something additional and specialised is needed.

The extension of the welfare principle enshrined in the Children Act 1989 is welcome. I also welcome the notion of parental responsibility. It is clear that the use of the phrase "parental rights" has not helped. Parents do not have rights; they simply have responsibility. I have difficulty in understanding why the welfare principle should apply to almost all cases except the determination of an adoption order. If the welfare principle is paramount, it should be paramount in all cases. I cannot see any reason why there should be an exception.

The change in step-parent adoptions is welcome. Obviously, it was nonsense that the process of adoption made an adoptive parent of a natural parent because both had to lodge applications to enable the step-parent to adopt.

I also welcome the notion of a child's agreement. I agree with other hon. Members that an arbitrary age is not helpful, but the recommendation will give the message that, even if the age limit is complied with, we should listen to children. Sadly, children in care have simply not been listened to. They have been subjected to what other people think is good for them. People often take a dogmatic view. To encourage people to talk to children is a progressive step.

The abolition of the freeing for adoption order is welcome. I agree with the Minister that that provision was perhaps used in a way that was not helpful and was not intended. The idea of settling an adoption by means of a placement order is helpful in contested cases, but I have a problem with the notion of a placement order being made before every placement. I ask the Minister to consider how that will work with the role of adoption panels.

The adoption service looks for special parents when it seeks to place children between the ages of two and eight. Having identified those parents, it is often difficult to proceed without a meeting or some introductory period which serves as a time for judging whether that placement should proceed. I am concerned that having an adoption order made in all circumstances would not help in making a proper assessment or using an introductory period as an assessment time. I suspect that most social workers would never introduce a child to adoptive parents before a placement order had been made, so a chance to assess what the child is like with the adoptive parents, and how the adoptive parents feel about the child, may be lost.

Often this is a matter of chemistry. Things may look excellent on paper, but when people meet and spend time with each other, for some reason the relationship may not work on that level. I ask the Minister to consider more carefully what current practice is, before insisting on a placement order before the placement of every child. In some circumstances that would not be helpful.

I also ask the Minister to take the fostering legislation into consideration. Most children—indeed, all children, especially those of the ages I have mentioned—are first placed with foster parents, under fostering legislation. There is a danger that, if we make one route too hard, children will remain in foster care—and that will not reduce the delays or achieve the original intention of the Act. Will the Minister consider that aspect carefully?

As the Minister knows, I have corresponded with him before about being careful to ensure that there are no loopholes or easy ways out in what we put on to the statute book. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, people will use those if they can. I especially remember writing to the hon. Gentleman about unregistered children's homes. Clearly, the intention of the Children Act 1989 was that homes with more than four children would register—indeed, that was a legal obligation.

However, it was assumed that homes with fewer than four children would be covered by fostering legislation. That turned out to be an incredible assumption. In fact, there was no legal obligation for homes to fall into either category, so there are now several small private children's homes covered by neither the fostering legislation nor the private homes legislation. In other words, local authorities placed children in totally unregulated homes, because the possibility to do so existed.

I urge the Minister, when he examines placement orders and the whole process of placement, to consider other legislation, too. It is important that children whose best interests would be served by adoption should end up being adopted rather than continuing to be fostered by default because the adoption process has become too difficult.

I am a little concerned about non-agency placements. Foster parents and other carers and non-relatives can apply for an adoption order, but so far as I can see, such people cannot apply to adopt a child without the local authority's consent. Without that consent, there is no way in which their application to adopt can surface—and there have sometimes been disagreements between foster parents and agency social workers about what is in a child's welfare interests. If a social worker decides not to recommend the application, there is nowhere for foster parents to appeal against the decision, because the whole process is contained within the agency.

Will the Minister consider setting up a process whereby foster parents can appeal—possibly to an independent body—against agency decisions not to support an adoption application? I have known of foster parents who had a good case and placements that would have met a child's welfare needs, yet because of a certain social worker's attitude, the application could not proceed. It is unfortunate, to say the least, when that happens.

One part of the report deals with marital status. I was taken aback by the illogicality of paragraph 26.10, on applications from unmarried couples. It is permissible for one half of such a partnership to apply and for the social worker making the assessment to take into account how the other partner, who cannot apply, is likely to look after a child and that person's possible parenting ability. But the report gives a reason for not permitting joint applications from unmarried couples and I must quote it, because I find it difficult to understand. It states: unmarried parents do not have the same legal obligations to one another as a married couple have. That is true, but married couples have those legal obligations only so long as they wish to have them. When a couple who were once married wish to dissolve those obligations, they no longer have them. The report says that, for that reason: the caring parent may therefore be less financially secure than if they were married. When a relationship breaks down, whether unmarried people are separating or married people are divorcing, the financial security and the arrangements made afterwards depend on their individual financial circumstances. The fact that a couple have been married does not give them any advantage over an unmarried couple, so the generalisation in the report is wrong. It cannot possibly be a reason for not accepting applications from unmarried people.

The report continues: one of the special features of adoption is that it transfers a child from one family to another and gives the child a legal relationship with all members of the new family, including grandparents, aunts and uncles. However great the commitment of unmarried adoptive parents to a child might be, it is open to question how far their wider families would be willing to accept that child as part of their family. That is absolute nonsense, because in any assessment the social worker will examine the wider support networks—that is part of the assessment. One does not presume that the networks are non-existent and that the wider family will not accept the child, simply because the couple are not married. One considers that possibility during the assessment process. If the recommendation is to be pursued, someone somewhere will have to come up with a better reason than the one in paragraph 26.10, because it is terrible nonsense.

We talk of providing a "service" for adoption and discuss services for birth parents, adoptive parents, prospective adopters and childless people. In this context, the word "service" means social workers taking time to talk to people—the service which is provided is time. If you want that service to be provided, you will have to back it up with payment for the service and for the time, otherwise those services will not be provided, either by local authorities themselves or by their giving grants to voluntary agencies to provide services on their behalf. When resources are limited, people prioritise, and services for which there is less statutory responsibility fall off the end. Local authorities have been doing that for years.

When you provide, as I am sure you will, a brochure saying that local authorities will provide those services, all that will happen is that you will raise expectations—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. Before the hon. Lady continues, I remind her of the rules governing the use of the word "you". I had hoped that she was using that word in an impersonal sense, but it is now clear that she is directing some of her remarks to the Minister instead of to me.

Ms. Coffey

I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. I got slightly carried away.

The Minister is considering allowing local authorities to charge for adoption services. I caution him to examine that proposal very carefully. I am concerned that if there is a charging policy, only those who could pay for that service would use it and that might become discriminatory.

It is difficult to be a good parent even if one has a supportive family, adequate income, friends, leisure activities and help. Some children—although not all—enter local authority care because little support is provided for mothers who are struggling with young children. Such situations lead to breakdown. In some circumstances, such families could have been kept together if there had been support in the community. Although that is the intention of the Children Act 1989, such provision is beyond the responsibility of the social services. We must consider all aspects of the services provided by local authorities.

8.31 pm
Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) on his maiden speech at the Dispatch Box.

We all agree that the interests and welfare of children should always be at the centre of adoption proposals and legislation. The review document recognises that an openness in adoption which allows for an exchange of information between doctors and birth families, and in some cases face-to-face contact, helps children to develop a more real and complete sense of who they are. It also enables older children to make the move into new families without the pain of losing links with relatives.

Open adoption will also help many adopted adults who spend years trying to trace information about their pasts. The amount and type of contact must be matched to the age and circumstances of each child and will inevitably change over the years as the child and the circumstances change and develop.

Any new legislation introduced as a result of the review must allow for a range of options in contact arrangements so that individual plans can be made for each child. Contact is a continuum, and any arrangements for contact must allow for the maximum flexibility.

The document recommends that no placement should be made without a formal hearing, during which a placement order will be made. Most of the children who are placed for adoption these days are older children and many of them have spent years in the care system. Many of them have come from very troubled and difficult backgrounds. Although introductions may have taken place, it is difficult for children or adults to make an informed choice in such a situation.

The document recommends that a guardian is appointed once the request for a placement order is lodged. It also recommends that during a very short period—for example, six days—the guardian will have to approach all interested parties to discover whether anyone objects to the child being placed for adoption. If an objection is lodged, a full court hearing will have to be held, and that would take several months.

Given that current experience shows that attachments between children and adults begin at the point of introduction, one wonders how a three-year-old child will understand what is happening or how a troubled seven or nine-year-old will cope with the uncertainty while waiting for a court hearing.

In those circumstances, is it envisaged that contact between the children and prospective adoption family will continue? Or is everything going to be put on ice? In such circumstances, it is likely that agencies, aware of possible repercussions. and insecurities for children, will prefer to use the fostering family placements legislation and put children in a foster placement. That could lead to a drift and avoid permanence—something that the review sets out to avoid.

The review suggests that a guardian ad litem be appointed for every adoption case and that the strict timetables introduced in the Children Act 1989 are used throughout the adoption process. That would create an enormous amount of extra work for guardians ad litem, and one wonders how existing guardians would be able to undertake extra work.

Moreover, the review also states that agencies should have a duty to give birth parents the opportunity to have their own social worker so that they can participate in the decisions about a child's future. In effect, that means that, where adoption is being considered for a child, three different social workers could be involved—the child's social worker, the birth parents' social worker and the guardian ad litem.

Such a recommendation obviously ensures the highest possible practice, but one wonders how a local authority could possibly manage to resource that recommendation in the current economic climate. The document clearly identifies current delays in adoption practice and recommends strict timetabling in future to avoid that. However, it is conceivable that the extra work involved will mean that adoption will be delayed because agencies simply will not have the resources to meet any new requirements. As a result, children may well still be drifting around in care.

The document also recommends that the responsibility for inspection and approval of voluntary adoption societies should revert to local authorities. That responsibility is currently held by the social services inspectorate and inspections are carried out every three years. The recommendation will lead to difficulties for many local authorities.

We must recognise that a large proportion of adoption work is carried out by voluntary societies such as Barnardo's, the Children's Society, the Church of England and many others. Much of the expertise in adoption lies with those voluntary societies. I wonder how local authorities will be able to inspect those organisations effectively.

The arms-length inspection units were set up to inspect residential homes for the elderly. They also have some responsibilities under the Children Act 1989. We must recognise that adoption work is highly complex and specialised. I believe that such expertise is currently not available in most of the inspection units, and it may well have to be brought in from elsewhere. The document suggests that the voluntary agencies should pay for that service. I wonder how on earth they could possibly afford that, given the current economic climate.

Concern about children who come into Britain has been growing for some time. For some children, their only chance of a happy family life is through inter-country adoption. However, those children need and deserve the same kind of protection that we take for granted in domestic adoptions. The proposals represent a real step forward in introducing safeguards. They will not prevent inter-country adoptions when that is best for the child, but they will go a long way towards preventing abuses such as trafficking in children.

We look forward to the proposals being translated into legislation, but only after full consultation with all concerned.

8.39 pm
Mr. Hinchliffe

I wish to take up some points from the debate and reinforce comments made on both sides of the House. We have had a useful debate. There is broad consensus on what is proposed in the review, albeit some reservations have been expressed.

Although there was only one contribution from the Government Back Benches, it was by the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), who has a particular interest in the issue. I read with interest the comments that he was reported in The Sunday Telegraph on 25 October as having made: Mr. Thurnham does not support calls from the far right that children should be placed only in two-parent families and that homosexuals should be rejected. 'Every case should be considered on its individual merits. I know of many cases where single people do a wonderful job,' he said. I reinforce that comment. Although I disagree with the emphasis in parts of his speech tonight, it was thoughtful, useful and helpful. I think that we would all concur with his central point that the main issue is what is best for the individual child.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) has had to leave the Chamber, but I am glad that she was able to make a contribution. I affirm her success as a single parent, having met her children and her grandchildren. She described from her personal knowledge the marked changes in society which have led to the need for the review and for changes in adoption legislation. My hon. Friend reinforced the point that children's rights and interests must underpin the adoption proposals.

One crucial point made by my hon. Friend on inter-country adoptions was that British children have been exported for adoption. When the Australian rugby league team were here for the world cup final recently, I met a woman who had come with the team. She had found out that her father had been exported to Australia, without the knowledge of his family, and had been adopted in questionable circumstances. That happened within the lifetime of hon. Members present for the debate.

My hon. Friend also stressed the need for balance in same-race adoptions. Again, no doubt most hon. Members would agree with what she said.

I was pleased to hear the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Gunnell), who has a unique background, both in personal terms and because of his political involvement as a past chair of Leeds social services department. He made the important point that the same principles should apply to inter-country adoptions as apply to adoptions within this country. I support that; no doubt Conservative Members would subscribe to that, too.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue, covered by several other hon. Members, of proper resources being necessary for local authorities to operate provisions affecting children. Many hon. Members with experience of working in local government or as councillors can vouch for how hard pressed many local authorities have been over many years and certaintly recently.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms. Coffey) gave us the benefit of her recent professional knowledge. It is gratifying for me to welcome her as a former social worker to the House. I felt somewhat lonely having only the Secretary of State to talk to as a former social worker, and I did not often get great comfort from her. I am glad that my hon. Friend is here to support me and to contribute to these debates from her practical experience.

My hon. Friend referred to the need to encourage people to listen to children. In the past we have often disregarded the voice of children. When I worked for Leeds social services department, I can recall the first time that the actual child in care was involved. That was as recently as the mid-1970s. That is a disgrace.

I look forward to the Minister's response to a specific issue raised by my hon. Friend—the gap in the Children Act 1989 in regard to unregistered private children's homes. The Minister has corresponded with my hon. Friend on that. I am concerned about the issue which she has uncovered. No doubt the Minister will be willing to respond to it.

My hon. Friend also made a telling point about the need for appeal mechanisms. Sometimes social workers make wrong decisions. A social worker may be prejudiced about an adoptive applicant, so it is right that appeal mechanisms should he introduced in future adoption legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes), another former chair of social services who speaks with experience of balancing demands and statutory obligations against the matching resources, made an important point which has underpinned several contributions. He wanted to know how the Government would square the recommendations with resourcing the extra social work time that will be needed to carry out many of the provisions.

We have had an interesting debate with several important points being made. I hope that the Government will realise how much interest there is in this subject and that the Minister will take note of the pleas of several hon. Members to extend the consultation period so that there can be proper debate and public discussion of the many important recommendations in the report.

8.46 pm
Mr. Yeo

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I should like to reply to the debate. As the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) has said, it has been a useful debate, characterised by the fact that all hon. Members who spoke did so either with a long-standing interest in the subject or with direct experience of it.

May I begin by welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his Front-Bench duties? He brings considerable knowledge and experience of the issues. I do not suppose that we shall always enjoy the same harmony as this evening. He was somewhat ungracious in his reference to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Mr. Hinchliffe

I was paying her a compliment.

Mr. Yeo

The compliment was heavily disguised. The attitude of the Government Benches towards social workers has undoubtedly been influenced in a most favourable manner by my right hon. Friend's demeanour, bearing, and, if I am allowed to say so on the day after the Church of England decided to approve the ordination of women, even her appearance; she has influenced many of my hon. Friends to take a more sympathetic attitude towards social workers.

The hon. Gentleman referred earlier to the high success rate of adoptions in this country. Above all, that is a tribute to the care with which the whole process is undertaken. We must be careful not to do anything which diminishes that success rate in future.

I noted the hon. Gentleman's point about the suitability of the age of 12, which was also mentioned by the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Gunnell). Inevitably it is an arbitrary figure which we may want to reconsider in the light of the response to the review. The court has the power to make any child, however young, a party to the proceedings.

The hon. Member for Wakefield referred in his opening speech to the sad case of an adopted person who experienced difficulty in tracing his birth family. Such experience must influence our consideration of issues about openness and contact.

The only time when the hon. Gentleman dragged in politics was when he tried to imply that poverty and deprivation were factors which might lead parents to decide that they wanted their child to be adopted.

Mr. Hinchliffe

That is true.

Mr. Yeo

If it is true, as the hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position, the dramatic fall in the numbers of children needing adoption since 1979—a fall of more than 40 per cent. over the last 13 years—is yet another indicator of the massive rise in living standards enjoyed by every section of the community.

Mr. Hinchliffe

To balance the figures that the hon. Gentleman just quoted, he ought to consider alternative means to deal with children requiring substitute care other than adoption. The figures are not as bland and simple as he quoted.

Mr. Yeo

As the hon. Member knows, the number of children in residential care has fallen dramatically during the same period.

The hon. Member for Wakefield commented on the consultation period and was supported by his hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms. Coffey). I do not have a passionate view on that subject. If the timetable were extended, it would obviously have an effect on the timing of future legislation. The more protracted the period of consultation, the later will be the chance for legislation, but we shall take account of the views expressed. The consultation process is helped by the fact that much of the work of the review was published as the process unfolded.

The hon. Member for Wakefield quoted an article in Social Work Today. I make no apology for reiterating my conviction that in the majority of cases a married couple is the best answer for the child. I cannot stress how strongly I feel that every local authority should make the most strenuous efforts to seek married couples. No one has any right to adopt.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) cited a useful example of the sort of single parent who can make a valid contribution as an adoptive parent. That was a helpful example. He also said that he had been assessed as having an insecure job. I am so glad that in 1987 and 1992 his job was demonstrated to have a high degree of security. If he continues to contribute to the House so thoughtfully and constructively, he has one of the most secure jobs of anyone who took part in the debate. I have noted his concern about the tone of the report's references to inter-country adoptions.

My hon. Friend mentioned Romania, and I have been disappointed that, since we signed the agreement with the Romanian committee for adoption in March—it became operative on 5 May—not one child has been adopted by a United Kingdom parent under the agreement. When the agreement comes up for review in January next year, we must consider carefully whether it is in our interests to continue with it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East may like to know that I have decided to ask our ambassador in Bucharest to take up with the Romanian Government our concerns about the lack of results from the agreement, and to press them to take whatever measures may be needed to make that agreement work more effectively. I shall also write to some of the other countries involved—more than 20 have signed similar agreements with Romania—to find out their experiences and whether they have encountered similar difficulties.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

May I give an example of a successful adoption from Romania? Bev and Ruth Smith, in my constituency, adopted Emese Gabor and at the time of her adoption she was the only child that I had heard of being adopted from a Romanian mental institution. The couple adopt many mentally disabled children and have all the facilities and abilities to deal with them. When they saw the terrible conditions which existed in Romania, they insisted on the adoption. It turned out that Emese is not mentally disabled, although she was in one of those terrible institutions. On carefully monitored occasions, such adoptions are very much worth while.

Mr. Veo

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that contribution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East mentioned one case and he will understand that I do not want to comment on it in public, although I shall consider what has happened and what the Home Office is doing about it. I suggest that he pays a visit to the helpline that he referred to. We should be glad if he did so. As he knows, the committee on inter-country adoptions has nominated a representative to serve on the project board which will review the operation of the helpline in the new year.

Several hon. Members mentioned resourcing of local authorities. Personal social services have been resourced generously—resources are up by two thirds in real terms since 1979. Charging is permitted, so no local authority should be deterred by a lack of resources from undertaking work in connection with possible inter-country adoptions.

An inter-country adoption agency could well have a place, but it would be better if it emerged from the domestic adoption service. The specialised knowledge of economic and social circumstances on an international scale may well be outside the scope of a local authority and an independent agency could fill that need. Of course, the basic principles and the standard of domestic adoptions, including the home study process, would need to be maintained.

The hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) made an outstanding contribution to the debate. She has been in touch with me about her interest in the subject and she has great experience of it. I welcome her endorsement of much that I said in my opening speech. She described powerfully the experiences of children taken from this country many years ago, and that underlines the fact that we should be careful to avoid allowing apparently up-to-date and fashionable ideas or modern thinking to outweigh basic common-sense principles when we consider adoption. Her remarks about age were important. I share her view that most of us enter parenthood with limited knowledge of what we are in for and that we have to learn as we go along. She was particularly right in her view of the race issue. There are appalling instances of children being removed from foster parents merely on the ground that they are of a different race from the child.

The hon. Member for Eccles made an interesting remark about the possibility that great openness and contact might lead to more adoptions. Under the Children Act 1989, grandparents may apply for a residence order which gives some stability and parental responsibility without the drawback of confusing the relationships of being a grandparent and a parent.

The hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South made an important point about the need to avoid an unnecessary extension of the court time required.

The hon. Member for Stockport has been in correspondence with me about the position of small, unregistered children's homes and I shall respond to her about that as it falls slightly outside the terms of the debate. She referred to the fact that three out of five children adopted are between the ages of one and nine. That percentage has changed surprisingly little during the past 15 years. I note her concern about the procedure for the court to grant a placement order before placement commences, and we shall reflect on that. I do not share her view that unmarried couples should be considered equally suitable adoptive parents as married couples. Couples who have decided to get married have demonstrated a commitment to a relationship which is of a different order from that of two people who happen to live together.

The debate has been most helpful, and we shall take note of all the views expressed inside and outside the House. I hope that other people will follow the discussions and will support them by sending in their views.

Mr. Timothy Kirkhope (Leeds, North-East)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave withdrawn.

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