HC Deb 03 November 1993 vol 231 cc343-55 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Health (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley)

With permission, I would like to make a statement about the Government's plans for the amendment of adoption law in England and Wales and for the development of adoption policy and practice. These plans are set out in a White Paper which I am publishing today. Copies are available in the Vote Office. The necessary legislation will be introduced as soon after the forthcoming Session as parliamentary time permits.

The White Paper builds on the recommendations of an interdepartmental working group, whose report was published last year, and subsequent consultation. We have also been influenced by the substantial body of research on adoption, a summary of which, prepared by my Department's social services inspectorate, has been placed in the Library of the House.

Adoption is about creating a loving and stable family upbringing which best provides for the child. The basic framework for adopting children remains sound. Given their fundamental importance to the life of the child, all adoptions will continue to be authorised by the courts, advised as appropriate by social services authorities or adoption agencies, which are in turn advised by adoption panels.

However, there is a need to bring the legislation up to date. The law in this field was last changed in 1975. Adoption today is very different from 20 years ago. The number of adoptions has more than halved in the intervening period. Fewer babies and toddlers are adopted, and a greater proportion of adoptions are of older children. Half of all adoptions today arise as a result of remarriage, when a step-parent wishes to establish a legal relationship with the natural child of his or her spouse. More people are interested in adopting children from abroad. The White Paper has been written against this background. It sets out a modern framework for adoption to take account of the way people live now.

The first duty in adoption must be to the child. There is a need to strengthen the law to take this fact more explicitly into account. Specifically, we propose to give children aged 10 or more the right to participate in their own adoption proceedings. They will have to agree before an adoption order can be made.

Where the birth parents oppose adoption, we propose a new and more explicit legal test for the courts. They must be positively satisfied that adoption offers significantly better prospects for the child than less permanent alternatives.

We shall reinforce the general preference of authorities and agencies for recommending married couples as adoptive parents. Above all, potential adoptive parents should be judged on the care, affection and stability they can offer the child.

There should be no place for ideology in adoption. We want common-sense judgments, not stereotyping. There are, for example, no good grounds for refusing on principle to contemplate trans-racial adoptions or adoption by parents over a prescribed age. Those basic points will be reinforced in guidance.

We intend new safeguards against the unacceptable handling of adoption cases. The White Paper describes a new complaints procedure for any party to an adoption case who is seriously dissatisfied.

Adoption is a service for children, not adults. Those offering to adopt, however, are entitled to fair, courteous and sensitive treatment. Statutory adoption agencies will remain responsible for deciding who to recommend as adoptive parents, but parents applying to adopt will have new opportunities for appeal and reassessment.

We also intend to consult on strengthening adoption panels to make them more broadly based. They will include more independent members and, wherever possible, one or more successful adoptive parent.

Where a step-parent adopts, we propose to end the anomaly that the birth parent in the new marriage is obliged to adopt his or her own child. Step-parents will still be able to adopt, but we intend to offer them and their spouses a new and simpler way of sharing legal responsibility for the child. They will be able to make and register with the courts a parental responsibility agreement. That will give them a joint responsibility for the child in the new marriage without severing the child's relationship with his other natural parent. The decision to enter such an agreement will not require professional assessment; it will be for families alone to decide.

We also propose a new guardianship order enabling other long-term carers and relatives, including foster parents, to define a more permanent legal relationship with children for whom they care. That would enable them to have their responsibility for the child's welfare recognised in law without going as far as full adoption.

Recent years have seen a steady growth in inter-country adoptions. That reflects both international events and the fact that, while the number of children available for domestic adoption has declined, the number of people wishing to adopt has not.

Those who want to adopt children from abroad should have their wishes respected. In all suitable cases, such adoptions should be facilitated. However, the procedures must be proper. They must prevent abuse. We must aim for the same high level of protection and benefits for the child as in domestic adoptions.

Earlier this year, the Government were represented in the preparation of a new Hague convention on inter-country adoption. Adoptions between countries which ratify the convention should become much simpler than at present without losing any safeguards.

In particular, there will be no need to duplicate adoption orders in both countries involved. Immigration clearance for the child will become an integral part of the adoption process. The United Kingdom will ratify the convention once Parliament has enacted the necessary legislation.

The Government believe that adoption continues to play a valuable part in our society. This is a view which is no doubt shared by the vast majority of the 750,000 people in Britain whom we estimate are adopted. Adoption provides children with a chance of a secure and loving unpbringing. The White Paper will strengthen a system which already has much to its credit. It is a White Paper for children, and a White Paper for families. I commend it to the House.

Mr. David Blunkett

First, I would like to thank the Secretary of State and her officials for the courtesy they have shown me in ensuring that I could see the White Paper and the documents in time to be able to read them this afternoon.

Many issues of ideology divide the House, but the interests and the needs of children are not one of them. I pay tribute to all those who have contributed to the work on this White Paper and to adoptive and foster parents up and down the country.

Despite the briefing that took place with some newspapers and media outlets, the White Paper is sensible and welcome. Gone is the cash-register mentality of charging for adoption—although I ask the Secretary of State to examine the regulations on charging for inter-country adoption. Gone is the abuse of social workers. Instead, there is a welcome commitment to openness and to the development of what is described as a complaints procedure, although it might more accurately be described as a review.

Will the Secretary of State reflect, with us, on why she chose to pick out magistrates courts committees for nominating additional independent members of adoption panels, when we all agree that there should be a non-legalistic approach to ensuring the best possible consideration of adoptive parents and the needs of the children concerned?

Had we been involved, we might have been able to come up with a better title for the White Paper—perhaps the simple title, "Putting Children First". Does the right hon. Lady accept that we all have an interest in putting behind us any nonsense about political correctness and any prejudice in the application of the clear principle of ensuring that the interests of the child are at the forefront of our thinking? Does she agree that finding the right parents, or parent, for the right child is all that matters?

We could draw on the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor), who is sitting beside me on the Front Bench. She has made an admirable parent over many years. What matters is not age, status, weight, height or anything else—in saying that I imply no reflection on my hon. Friend, of course, Madam Speaker—but solely the needs of the child. What matters is not the isms or other factors that have been brought to public attention, but simply the right person to do the right job.

Will the Secretary of State say how, in approaching the International Year of the Family, we might join together in introducing measures that support, succour and encourage the family and stability, rather than undermining it? That could involve offering prospective adoptive parents counselling and support, including advice on infertility, so that they could also make choices within the NHS.

In a spirit of consensus—and without having a heart attack—will the Secretary of State accept my congratulations on the part that she has played in preparing the Hague convention, which is an important step towards protecting children and their parents throughout the world? Will she, with our European partners, seek to take clear and decisive steps to establish uniformity and proper standards right across the European Community for the entry of children, so that we can ensure that, whether they are from the war-torn regions of the world or from areas where standards are not so high, children are not abused by abduction and sale? Will she join other European member states in preventing the sale of children, which has recently been drawn to public attention in Greece, where four people were arrested in Athens last week for the abduction and sale of babies?

Will the Secretary of State join us in seeking to strengthen and widen the White Paper by reconsidering the training and retraining provided? Instead of narrowing and shortening training procedures, we could broaden them to take into account the proposed new powers and responsibilities.

May every child be wanted, may every child be protected and may every child be cared for. May we in the House, for once in our lives, avoid the simple adversarial approach to finding solutions and all play our part in securing the well-being of children for the future.

Mrs. Bottomley

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive and positive approach to the White Paper. I share his sentiment that the well-being and welfare of children should unite political parties. There are difficult and complex issues to be addressed, but there is no reason for that to divide us.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions. He asked about the independent members of the adoption panels; the magistrates committee was simply given as an example of one such group that might wish to nominate to those panels. We particularly wish to have those who have been successful adoptive parents themselves. It is an area where, with the best will in the world, theory and ideology can easily overtake common sense and practical judgments. We wish, wherever possible, to ensure that those practical principles are well founded throughout the adoption process.

The hon. Gentleman was right to pay tribute to all adoptive and foster parents in this country. We have a tradition of placing in families children with enormous individual needs. Many of the hard-to-place children in this country have a home with a family when, elsewhere, they would be confined to an institution. It is important that we build on that tradition of good practice.

The hon. Gentleman referred also to the International Year of the Family. We are all aware that many families are struggling, for a great range of reasons. The turbulence and change of modern society means that many families find themselves isolated and vulnerable. Finding ways of supporting parents and family formation in communities is something that we should all share.

The hon. Gentleman referred to other countries where child, care practices do not meet the standards that we can take for granted in this country. The United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which we were able to ratify, is an important step forward and, shortly, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health, who has special responsibility for children, will be reporting on our progress in the UN convention. That makes it clear that there should be no two-tier service. We should not apply a standard for the adoption of children from overseas that is lower than the high standard that we apply at home.

The hon. Gentleman referred to training. Training, support and counselling are important in adoption, but so is the training of social workers generally. We recently appointed Geoffrey Greenwood to the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work. He will, I believe, ensure that there is greater public confidence in the work of social workers who are, after all, entrusted with making decisions of great significance.

The White Paper is about creating stable families. Many of the children for adoption today come from broken homes. Adoption offers them a brighter future. The White Paper makes it clear that their interests are best served by placing them with people, usually married couples, who can provide a secure and caring upbringing.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. Perhaps we might now have brisk questions and brisk answers, please.

Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Does she agree that the White Paper strikes a blow for common-sense judgment in adoption? Does she also agree that the adoption panels are particularly important in reinforcing that message? Is she able to give the House further details about her proposals to strengthen the panels?

Mrs. Bottomley

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. It is a balance between professional judgment and the common-sense view. Adoption is about finding the best possible outcome for an individual child. It is no good a child hanging around in limbo while some theoretically politically correct parent appears over the horizon. It is better to place a child with the best available family in the circumstances. I very much hope that the additions to the adoption panels will reinforce that common sense approach. As I have said, we hope that among those who will join adoption panels are those who have been successful adoptive parents. All parents—both natural and adoptive—will know that sometimes practice and theory do not match perfectly.

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale)

I welcome the publication of the White Paper, which we hope will get rid of some of the ridiculous cases of which we have heard during the past few months, when political correctness has been taken into account. As the assessment must be open and fair, will the right hon. Lady give an assurance that social workers will receive additional training where necessary? Will she ensure that successful adoptive parents will get back-up and support after the adoption, in same way that they do before the adoption? Will the natural parent have to give permission before a step-parent can adopt, as is the case at present?

Mrs. Bottomley

The hon. Lady asked about training, and I have commented on the improvements that we wish to see in social work training generally. There are many more qualified social workers than there were previously, but it is important that we continue to modernise and update the training that is available.

The hon. Lady is right about the importance of back-up and support, and it is important that it is provided in the early years. That is part of the work of counselling before an adoption has been entered into. Some parents resent the intrusive nature of that assessment. It is my view that adoption is an irrevocable decision, and it is important that every step is taken to be as sure as possible that there will be a positive outcome.

The adoption by a step-parent will need the agreement of the natural parent. However, we are introducing the parental responsibility agreement, which is a voluntary agreement which can be dealt with by a court without the complexity of a full adoption.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on injecting a strong dose of common sense into the social worker's world, which is too often full of absurd ideologies and pettifogging bureaucracies? Does she agree that would-be parents should be helped and guided, rather than hindered and obstructed? Will she consider setting up a specialist overseas adoption agency, such as exists in Scandinavia, to help and guide couples who wish to adopt from abroad in what is a complex area?

Mrs. Bottomley

I thank my hon. Friend, who, of all hon. Members, works hard to ensure that there is a more positive approach to inter-country adoption. We have already established a helpline for those who are interested in inter-country adoption, which has received about 1,000 calls in the first year. In due course, there may well be scope for a specialist agency involved in inter-country adoption. I had hoped that one of the existing voluntary agencies might take up the task, but, so far, the call has not been successful.

Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill)

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important, in the interests of the child and of the adopting parents, that total confidentiality is given to the names and addresses of parents? How can the Secretary of State explain her decision to allow staff at the University of Birmingham to have access to such information without the permission of the mothers involved?

Mrs. Bottomley

I will look into that matter, and come back to the hon. Gentleman.

Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to pay tribute to the wonderful work that is done by a great number of foster parents? Will she consider the harrowing cases where a foster parent has looked after a child for many years, but then the natural mother has come and claimed the child? Does the White Paper address that subject?

Mrs. Bottomley

It very much addresses the wise point that has been made by my hon. Friend. Foster parents provide magnificent services for children. There has been a dramatic fall in the number of children in institutions and in care in recent years. We provide the extra measure of a guardianship order which could be taken out by a foster parent so that a child could not then be removed by the mother without the matter returning to the court for its decision.

Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport)

I was pleased to see a section in the White Paper on contact services after adoption. As the Secretary of State is aware, that is a very important area, given the complexity of adoption. However, has she taken account of the resource implications, because a great deal of staff time will be involved? When the measure is on the statute book, will the Secretary of State consider the resource implications and ensure that the implementation of this very good legislation is not prevented because the resources are scarce?

Mrs. Bottomley

Year on year, we have discussions with social services departments about their additional responsibilities and the resource implications of those responsibilities. The hon. Lady will be aware that there has been a dramatic increase in resources for social services departments over the past three years. That has involved a 53 per cent. increase over the 1991 level and a 35 per cent. increase in real terms.

Be that as it may and to return to the hon. Lady's point, contact is an extremely sensitive point. However, now that so many more of the children involved are older and, therefore, have a living experience of their lives before adoption, many take the view that retaining some form of contact is appropriate for the most successful outcome. However, that should not be coercive. It requires careful consideration and, as the hon. Lady rightly said, detailed counselling and thought before decisions are made.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a truly excellent statement. With regard to the White Paper, what would be the position in respect of a homosexual couple who applied for adoption? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, whatever sympathy one might feel for couples in that position, the pattern of normality of normal family life would be so lacking that it simply could not be appropriate for such an adoption to take place?

Mrs. Bottomley

Homosexual couples cannot adopt now and there is no intention that they should be able to. As the White Paper makes clear, there must be a strong presumption in favour of adoption by a married couple. That is the position in the White Paper and it is the position which we are setting out for the future.

Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is quite inappropriate, and makes it extremely difficult for couples adopting a baby or small child, that there is no statutory right to maternity allowance or pay? A couple in that situation in my constituency had to ask, in the absence of statutory provision, whether their employer would be willing to provide time off work, and they were summarily dismissed. That adoptive couple began adopting with half the income that they were expecting. Having considered the matter, will the right hon. Lady urge the Secretary of State for Social Security and the Employment Secretary to take steps to remedy that situation for adoptive parents?

Mrs. Bottomley

Very few babies are now adopted at the stage when they would be eligible for maternity allowance. However, I will reflect on the hon. Lady's point.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that so long as she says that, usually, married couples will adopt children, there will be a fear that homosexual couples of either sex might adopt children—

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

This is irrelevant.

Mr. Greenway

I am concerned about children. Opposition Members should also be concerned about them. It is the children who matter.

Will my right hon. Friend also assure the House that when a child is removed for adopting purposes from a mother or father or just a mother, those people will receive proper counselling? Has my right hon. Friend ever had a mother in her surgery who said, "Give me back my baby"?

Mrs. Bottomley

My hon. Friend reinforces the concern felt by all Conservative Members about the fact that children need a mother and father. They need a stable family unit. We believe that there must be a strong presumption in favour of adoption by married couples. However, at the same time, there are circumstances in which an individual parent has provided most remarkable care for a child. For example, a widowed stepfather can adopt. My hon. Friend will be aware of women who have provided the most remarkable and dedicated care for a child, often with great needs, in a most impressive way. It would be quite wrong to prohibit that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) conveys the sensitivity of so many such matters and, of course, for the mother in the case that he describes, careful counselling and continuing support are high priorities.

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South)

As I have an adopted sister and an adopted son and was a member of an adoption panel for some years, I welcome the Secretary of State's White Paper, especially its priorities for providing children with a stable home background. What number of members does she envisage for the new adoption panels and what quorum would be required, as I have found that that matters? I welcome her latest statement that adoption panels will not have to be rigid. I agree that, in the majority of cases, children go to homes of married couples, but adoption panels also deal with children in difficult circumstances who need special kinds of care. Occasionally, as she says, the care of one parent can be what is needed. Will she ensure that rigidity does not occur?

Mrs. Bottomley

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. We will be consulting on the numbers of members and the most appropriate way in which to reinforce the adoption panels. The hon. Gentleman may comment on that consultation. The most appropriate approach to adoption, which I am sure is shared by the hon. Gentleman, is that it is about finding families for children and not necessarily providing children for childless couples. As long as we remember that it is the needs of the child for whom we must find the best possible home that should dictate decisions, children will benefit.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Colchester, South and Maldon)

I join other hon. Members in congratulating my right hon. Friend on her extremely sensible statement. Will she confirm that parents who wish to adopt, but may encounter considerations of political correctness in local authorities, will have alternatives open to them?

Mrs. Bottomley

I will. My hon. Friend is right; a disconcerting number of parents still do not believe that they have had a fair hearing or handling of their case by the social services department of their local authority. I regret that, but it is the case. That is why we shall be strengthening the complaints procedure on the basis set out in the Children Act 1989 so that it will be possible for parents who feel that they have not been fairly treated not only to complain but to require an assessment by another authority or one of the 39 voluntary adoption agencies.

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I welcome the White Paper and especially the proposal to give children over a certain age the right to participate in their own adoption procedures. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether she intends that to apply to children over the age of 12, or 10 as she said in her statement?

Mrs. Bottomley

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady because my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, who leads on that subject, has been urging me to find an opportunity to correct my misstatement earlier. Children over 12—not 10—will be eligible. I apologise for misleading the House.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Having made it clear that being fat, 40 and fairly well-off will no longer be a handicap in qualifying to adopt, will my right hon. Friend consider the case of couples—there are several in my constituency—who successfully adopted one child, waited a couple of years to allow that child to settle and when they applied to adopt a second child were told that they could not because they had become too old? Will she also consider that such couples often find an available child in another district, only to be told that that district will only allow people who live in its own geographical area to adopt children, which produces a lot of unhappiness among couples who have proved themselves worthy to be good parents?

Mrs. Bottomley

Ageism is one issue about which many people feel extremely strongly. Very often, older parents provide an excellent home for children and are perhaps wiser and calmer at the same time. Clearly, those making the assessment will want to be satisfied that there is a good prospect that the parents will be able to see the child through into early adulthood. That is quite different from the somewhat rigid, overbearing approach that seems to have been taken in some cases. My hon. Friend's point on finding a sibling for an adopted child is precisely the same as mine—it can only strengthen the existing placement and provide a very good home for another child.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Is not the background to this matter the fact that, under the Conservative Government, children have been under attack more than at any other time, with cuts in education, housing and the national health service? Bearing in mind what the Secretary of State said to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson), will she ensure that maternity benefits for adopted babies are provided? So few are involved that it will not be a large sum of money, and children are children whether they are adopted or born into a family.

The Secretary of State has mentioned, for example, an increase in local authority services. She talked about introducing a new complaints procedure for authorities and voluntary agencies. Will she finance it? Does she not realise that local authorities are strapped for cash? The large number of new services that are imposed on local authorities should be adequately financed. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance? Children are involved.

Mrs. Bottomley

There has been a dramatic increase in resources for social services, anyway. The White Paper spells out what good practice is. If the hon. Gentleman really wants to advance that argument, I am not aware that we have reduced funding for social service departments. The number of adoptions has fallen dramatically from about 25,000 to about 7,000 a year, and there is no suggestion that social services departments should receive fewer resources in that context.

As for the hon. Gentleman's other points, he cannot have been awake over the past few years. Child immunisation has gone through the ceiling—a dramatic increase—compared with standards that were delivered when his party was in government. Far more children now go on to university, and their education is very much better. There are far fewer children in care. There has also been a substantial increase in resources paid to low-income families. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman reads the White Paper and thinks of all the practical benefits that have been made available for children over the past 14 years.

Madam Speaker

I call Mr. Gyles Brandreth. [Interruption.] You are Mr. Gyles Brandreth?

Mr. Gyles Brandreth (City of Chester)

Yes, I am, Madam Speaker. I am glad that we both recognise that.

As I come from Chester, where one of my distinguished predecessors, Sir Basil Nield, pioneered the Adoption Act 1950, I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, particularly the emphasis on common sense and the abandonment of sexism, ageism, racism and so on. Does she agree that the best way of ensuring common sense on adoption panels is to have adoptive parents on them? Did I understand her to say that that would be a requirement or just desirable? What can she do to ensure that adoptive parents are regularly on adoption panels?

Mrs. Bottomley

If I have the name right, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth) for his contribution, because he has it precisely right. We intend that successful adoptive parents should join adoption panels. It is part of the citizens charter approach that the delivery of services should not be patronising and that it should work with people most closely involved so that we can learn from the experience of those who use the services as we provide them for others.

Mr. Matthew Carrington (Fulham)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on sensible and humane proposals which cannot be brought into force soon enough for the many people who are currently experiencing problems with adoption. Our hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health will know of a case in my constituency in which proposals in the White Paper would have been of great assistance. Is there any way in which the proposals or some of the proposals can be put into force sooner, perhaps by regulation or by common agreement and influence, so that they could assist people who are currently suffering problems?

Mrs. Bottomley

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is well aware of my hon. Friend's constituency case. It may be that some parts of the White Paper can be introduced earlier by means of good practice and guidance. But these are complex and sensitive matters and I believe that the House and others will want to consider carefully the proposals outlined in the White Paper before we move to final and firm legislation.

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's proposals, but will she clarify the streamlined immigration proposals that are in the White Paper?

Mrs. Bottomley

Yes. At present, those involved in inter-country adoption often have to go through the procedures both in this country and in the country from which the child is arriving. Similarly, they have to go through immigration procedures from scratch. As we have signed the Hague convention, we will make sure also that we have thoroughly streamlined those procedures, and will be considering the precise legislative route to achieve that in the weeks ahead.

Mr. Jonathan Evans (Brecon and Radnor)

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on achieving the degree of consensus that she has with the White Paper. Is it the Government's intention to ensure that the principle of the welfare of the child being paramount, which is enshrined in the Children Act 1989, is the same principle that will be brought into the legislation that she has said she will introduce?

What arrangements does my right hon. Friend intend to put before the House to ensure that children who are over the age of 12, who are now to be given the opportunity of participating in the process of adoption, will have their wishes properly considered and be given proper assistance to ensure that their views are put across with force?

Mrs. Bottomley

I thank my right hon. Friend, who is extremely knowledgeable in those matters. The principle of the child's interest being paramount is the founding basis on which the White Paper was prepared, along with the need for the courts and social services to extend the consideration of the child's welfare into adulthood, which is a further step forward. Children over the age of 12 will be full party to the proceedings. They will be able to receive legal aid and have their views known.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles)

I have a strange sense of deja vu as I stand here today. I welcome the consultation paper, and I agree with the right hon. Lady that we are talking about services to children and the interests of children. They are central to any action that we take about our children.

The White Paper says that, as I think the right hon. Lady underlined, when we are considering adoption, we must be sure that it is better than any alternative that may be available to the child. In such a situation, there is no room for rigidity, and in many instances the White Paper and the right hon. Lady have made that clear. Every child is unique and, therefore, the needs of that child will be unique.

The White Paper states that children should stay with their birth families where that is possible. That applies also to children overseas and, before we bring children from overseas, we have a duty to ensure that their interests are met and not disregarded.

I welcome quick decisions about children. Too many of our children are left in limbo for a long time pending decisions. With due respect to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight), we dealt with the question of tug-of-love children successfully in the 1989 Act, but the question of children in limbo still exists and that is a matter about which we need to be careful.

I do not want to sound a note of disagreement here, but I should like the right hon. Lady, in the process of consultation, to take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). Although it is true that babies in this country are not being adopted, and, as I think the right hon. Lady implied, maternity leave therefore does not apply, babies from overseas are being adopted—a point that the right hon. Lady made.

In addition, if one adopts an older child in this country, it is just as important that it has weeks with its adoptive parent to be bonded, just as a baby needs bonding. The same facilities that apply to mothers who give birth naturally should apply to all mothers and parents, irrespective of the origin of the child. That is very important.

I welcome the statement about open adoption where appropriate and applicable, so long as it does not jeopardise the development and growth of a new family. Open adoption is not easy. It is not easy for adoptive parents or natural parents to continue with contact. If natural parents are given a guarantee that it will not be a complete break, often they will agree to adoption and give the child a settled life. That is why I welcome that.

I welcome the move away from any rigidity on mixed ethnic adoption and fostering. That is important. As we proceed with this, I hope that there will be much greater encouragement for parents from ethnic minority groups to apply to adopt and foster. I do not think that we have done enough work in that direction. I certainly welcome the move. Many years ago, the right hon. Lady and I discussed the move away from any rigidity and the need to match a child. What is important is that the child must have a solid home—it cannot be left in limbo waiting for that to come along.

On the matter of rigidity, the principle of two parents is a sound one. But each child is unique and there will always be special circumstances in which the two-parent situation will not apply—and it should not be made to apply.

I welcome the suggestion about stepchildren and their adoption. As the House knows, we are moving into an era in which many stepchildren exist in families as a result of new marriages and relationships. It is important that we get that right. I hope that we will apply to the adoption of children from overseas exactly the same standards as those that we apply to the adoption of children in this country. In the past, I do not think that that has been done. I do not think that the vetting has been anything like as good as it should have been. I hope that we will examine the disclosures which, unfortunately, we constantly see about people here going abroad and buying children on the open market. That is disgraceful and it is something which we must examine.

I welcome the Hague convention. It will give us much more protection for children being adopted from overseas. Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) mentioned the work of the Child Migrants Trust and the revelations—[interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. May I draw the attention of the hon. Lady to the fact that she is not winding up a major debate? She is making a few pithy comments on a statement which I understand she already welcomes very much. She has been speaking for four full minutes—[Interruption.] I time things carefully. I wonder whether she would conclude and allow the Secretary of State to make a quick response.

Miss Lestor

In conclusion, and as pithily as I can, I say that we should learn from the experiences of the Child Migrants Trust with regard to children from abroad as well as those here.

The White Paper, which I welcome—I hope that we will consult on it—will make us a much more child-friendly society with regard to the children that we have in our trust to place properly with future parents.

Mrs. Bottomley

I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker, for being tolerant of the hon. Lady, because she speaks with special knowledge of these subjects.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right—the Child Migrants Trust has demonstrated how badly things go wrong when proper care is not taken. There can be no question of profiteering from trafficking in children. At the same time, we should be without prejudice. For children for whom there is no foreseeable prospect of their having a home in their country of origin, if there is a family that can provide them with a stable home in this country, we should not be prejudiced against such an arrangement.

I totally agree with the hon. Lady on the question of open adoption. In theory, it sounds splendid. In practice, I suspect that it is difficult to arrange. It is different for older children who know the previous family with whom they were placed, but I totally share the hon. Lady's view that it should be approached with great caution and care. I thank the hon. Lady for her overall welcome of the White Paper.

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