HC Deb 27 October 1998 vol 318 cc158-62 3.39 pm
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require local authorities to publish annual totals of numbers of children in care, numbers of children adopted and numbers of parents available to undertake adoptions; to require local authorities to provide the Secretary of State annually with a list of children in care, together with the length of time each child has been in care; and to require the Secretary of State to publish league tables of local authorities based on that information. I am privileged to have support for the Bill from hon. Members on both sides of the House, including the members of the all-party children group; the chairman of the child abduction group; the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), who generously gave up his slot for this Bill, and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field).

As we read today of young lives ruined by physical and sexual abuse, drug-taking and prostitution, many of us think, "Thank God that our children are not involved"; but surely all children matter. Perhaps the worst feature are the horrific statistics relating to children taken into care—those for whom the state has taken responsibility. We owe a special responsibility to them because they have no voice of their own.

Since my earlier ten-minute Bill on adoption, there has been another horrifying report to the House on the vicious abuse of children in another state-run children's home. Many workers in children's homes work intensely hard to do their best for very damaged children, but the overall statistics are extremely bleak. Children leaving care are 50 times as likely as other children to end up in adult prison. They are far more likely to be drug abusers. Perhaps most horrifyingly, girls in care have a one in four chance of being pregnant at some point during their time in so-called care. The evidence is that the rate of abuse of boys is almost the same.

We are failing the most vulnerable and defenceless members of our community, but there is one underrated institution that has a remarkable success rate—adoption. Studies from all over the world show how successful adoption is. Children from care who are adopted do much better not only than those who remain in care but than those returned from care to their natural parents. Incredibly, children adopted from care, including badly damaged children, out-perform even those who remain with certain categories of natural family.

Numerically speaking, however, adoption has collapsed. Only 6,000 children were adopted in 1995, compared with 22,000 a generation ago. The most scandalous figure is that, last year, fewer than 2,000 children were adopted from care, out of more than 50,000 currently in care. The number of children in care has started to rise again, while the number of those adopted from care continues to fall year after year. There are many families who would love to give those children a loving home.

In an earlier ten-minute Bill, I proposed legally forcing local authorities to give priority to adoption in certain circumstances, and to give assistance to couples adopting. I greatly regret that there is not to be an adoption Bill, although I welcome the fact that the Under-Secretary of State for Health has taken the trouble to come and listen to my speech.

In August, a circular from the Department of Health called on local authorities to be more open to adoption. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides would endorse the circular, but it is no substitute for legislation. I fear that many local authorities will ignore it, as they did a similar circular from the Minister's predecessor, John Bowis, who was then the hon. Member for Battersea, leaving the most vulnerable children in our society as the losers.

My previous Bill was given a First Reading without a vote. I am grateful for the all-party support for this more modest measure. The aim of the Bill is to turn the aspirations of successive Ministers and of hon. Members on both sides into clear reality. By ensuring the compilation of more statistics, the Bill would expose those local authorities that are holding children back from adoption for ideological reasons. It would require local authorities to furnish the Secretary of State with a list of every child in care, saying how long it has been in care. Incredibly, despite the clear legal requirement, many such children have not even been furnished with proper care plans.

The Bill would further require the Department to publish, by local authority, not just the total number of children in care, but how long they have been in care, the total number deemed suitable for adoption, the number who have been adopted and the number of parents cleared by the local authority as suitable for adoption. According to the Government's recent circular, all that information should be provided to elected councillors. By forcing local authorities to provide it in a standard format to the Government—and hence to Parliament—the Government, Parliament and the public will be able to see which local authorities are dragging their feet. Lest there be any doubt that some local authorities are dragging their feet, I remind hon. Members that last year 50 local authorities had 10 or fewer children adopted from care. Indeed, a few did not have any children adopted from care in the most recent accounting period.

The Bill would help to expose the unnecessary suffering of children trapped in the care system when there are loving families who would love to give them a home. In my earlier measure, I sought to give the Secretary of State the power to intervene with local authorities that did not appear to be acting in the best interests of the children concerned and to hand over their adoption responsibilities to voluntary organisations. This Bill would at least make the information public, showing which were the local authorities concerned.

We have a large and growing number of children slipping through the cracks from care into crime, drug taking and child prostitution. We must move the emphasis from long periods in children's homes—and in the case of some local authorities, politically correct experiments in placements, some of which are transitory—to a higher proportion of adoption, which should be effected by married couples, in my opinion. That would offer thousands of children who are lost in and by the care system the prospect of a decent home and a better life.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) has courteously written to tell me that he intends to oppose the Bill, but does not intend to put the matter to a vote. I should like him to answer two questions. First, does he accept that some local authorities are actively opposing adoption? Secondly, if he does not accept that, how does he explain why some had no children adopted out of care last year and many others had so few—and how does he explain the continuing fall in the national total? The system is unsatisfactory. We all want a Bill to facilitate adoption, but in the meantime, does the hon. Gentleman believe that it is all the system's fault? If he wants to oppose the Bill, I ask him to give the House the opportunity to vote on it.

3.49 pm
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

I should like to oppose the Bill. In doing so, I commend the commitment of the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and applaud him for bringing the important subject of adoption to the House. He asked me two direct questions, which I shall try to answer. I would be surprised if any local authority were actively opposing adoption. Some individuals—perhaps influential individuals—may have got themselves into a position where such events have resulted.

Sometimes, as I want to explain, adoption has fallen by default. The situation in adoption services is very serious. Like the hon. Gentleman, I want them to improve and develop; I just do not think that this Bill is the proper way to achieve that. I do not want to press the matter to a vote at this stage, because the subject is very important and it is vital instead that we have a proper debate.

One of my worries about the Bill arises from the fact that adoption is not the only proper way of looking after children in care—or necessarily the best way. The majority of children who are looked after in care are returned home—many very successfully. Some children remain quite appropriately in long-term foster care, and some remain quite appropriately in long-term residential care. As has been said, it seems that, under the Bill, local authorities could be criticised for not having children adopted, even when a good assessment, a well worked care plan and the wishes and feelings of the children indicate some other solution.

I commend the desire for information, which we of course need. As has been acknowledged, much of the information that would be required under the Bill is routinely collected or is on its way to being collected. If we want to improve and develop adoption as a profoundly important way in which to help children in care—I think that both the hon. Member for Canterbury and I do—we need to collect more sophisticated information about needs and resources throughout the care system and evaluate outcomes for care-leavers, including those who were adopted, rather than take up the ideological position of thinking that it is always or invariably best to adopt. We need to empower young people to tell us what it is really like for them in care.

We need fundamental reform of the care system. I am so pleased that the Government have introduced the "quality protects" initiative. I also look forward to the response to the Utting report. The importance of this debate is that it helps to draw attention to the problems in adoption. I agree with the figures that have been quoted. Recent research by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering shows that the use of adoption has fallen from 2,800 instances in 1992 to 2,300 in 1996, and that adoption is primarily an outcome for very young children. Indeed, 90 per cent. of those adopted in 1996 were aged five or under. The research reports terrible delays in finding placements and between making those placements and achieving the adoption.

The Government are addressing those is sues. They have taken sensible steps in "Adoption: achieving the right balance" to reinforce what I, as a former practitioner, would regard as good practice: recognising the benefits of adoption while taking account of the significance of race, culture, religion and language, so as to ensure that children are not denied adoptive placements on such grounds; accounting sensitively for age, health and smoking factors; and giving priority to long-term planning and a regular review of services.

I was worried by the fact that the hon. Member for Canterbury allowed comments about ideology and about political correctness to creep into his speech. Such thinking is not prevalent in social services departments.

Although local authorities should be accountable, league tables are wholly inappropriate for a complex, subtle, highly professional process, carefully assessing the individual child, balancing the needs of siblings, trying to keep families together, weighing the importance of contact with birth families, matching needs with the perceived qualities, abilities and experience of prospective adoptive families and, above all, trying to look into the future and work out how things will develop, perhaps a decade ahead. It may be a controversial view in the House, but I believe that there are a great many excellent social workers; they need to be encouraged and supported in good practice in complex and difficult human situations instead of being hit over the head with crude and misleading league tables.

The hon. Member for Canterbury referred to the lack of an adoption Bill; I entirely agree that one is needed. I am sorry that other aspects of his proposal today missed their opportunities. I should like to push the Government a little more. On Tuesday 20 October, in the House, the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering launched their adoption action plan. It is very good stuff. Some of it has been around for a very long time. We need a new Adoption Act. In 1996, a draft Bill on adoption received support from both sides of the House. A new Act could clarify the status of adoption in line with the Children Act 1989, in England and Wales. Other parts of Great Britain have already done so.

We need national standards for adoption services, to help improve practice across the board. We need performance indicators. We need ethnic monitoring of children in care and the adoption opportunities available to them. We need a national register of prospective adopters, so that people in one part of the country need not wait ages when children from another part might easily and properly be placed with them.

We need paid adoption leave for adoptive parents. That is so important in forming that vital bond early. We need adoption allowances, so that couples who are fostering children successfully are not financially penalised if they make the greater commitment to adopt them. Crucially, support services need to be provided for adoptive families after adoption.

Although the Bill is well meaning, it misses fundamental points. In the past 12 months, there have been signs that the Government have the potential to be a great reforming Government for children in care. Some good steps were taken in the recent Adoption Agencies and Children (Arrangements for Placement and Reviews)(Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 1997, but the Government can do more. We could all do more, so let us do it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Julian Brazier, Mrs. Llin Golding, Mr. David Davis, Mr. Bill Olner, Sir Sydney Chapman, Mr. Malcolm Wicks, Mr. Andrew Rowe, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. Laurence Robertson, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Mr. John Burnett and Mr. Christopher Fraser.