HC Deb 23 April 1999 vol 329 cc1140-202

Order for Second Reading read.

9.35 am
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

One way in which to judge the society that we live in is to assess the way in which we treat our children. One has only to consider the awful images of Kosovo to know that children can bring out strong emotions. Our country has a proud record of protecting the rights of children. It is interesting that the issue is covered by other private Members' Bills, including the one that came first in the ballot, the Protection of Children Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley).

For children who need care, we have a very good fostering and adoption system. Adoption of children living in the United Kingdom is rightly well regulated. The transfer of a child from his or her natural birth parents to a new set of parents cannot take place without rigorous controls and processes. Most adoptions in the UK involve British babies and parents. However, there is another sort of adoption, involving couples who seek to adopt a child from a foreign country. Although that does not involve large numbers, on average, five or six such adoptions take place every week. Intercountry adoption, as it is known, is new to this country and there are few rules to regulate it. My Bill seeks not only to provide for the regulation of intercountry adoption, but to improve the quality of intercountry adoption services to give even better protection to the children and, importantly, to help the prospective parents through the routes that will lead to adoption.

Until the Romanian revolution in 1989, intercountry adoption had a low profile in Britain. Although it has risen to about 300 cases a year, we do much less than other countries. In the United States, the annual figure for overseas adoptions is 10,000; in Holland and Sweden, about 2,000. Children come to this country from all over the world. In the past six years, families in the United Kingdom have adopted children from 42 different countries. The most popular are China, India and Guatemala. It is interesting to note that only three children came from Yugoslavia or Serbia, which do not have a history of allowing children to be adopted abroad.

If such small numbers are involved, why do we need the Bill? There are some problems with the current system. Most intercountry adoptions go through the proper channels. Prospective adopters get approval from local authority social services departments or an approved agency. Although the process is long and costly, it is legal and operates in the interests of the child. Regrettably, it is estimated that, in about 100 cases a year, people try to avoid the adoption procedures and bring children into the UK without their suitability as adoptive parents being properly assessed. In such cases, prospective parents may be aware that, if they went through the assessment programme, they would not be successful or, worse, they may have gone through it and been considered unsuitable, but believe that taking a foreign child is a back way to adoption.

Not only do some foreign adoption authorities and individuals place children with such people, but the means by which some children become available is a cause for concern. It is not uncommon for children to be delivered to an airport in mainland Europe for the adoptive parents to collect them. They return by car to the UK by a selected port of entry late at night, when they know that they are unlikely to be challenged about the presence of an unexpected child. Sadly, the new parents often meet the child for the first time at the airport, which must be traumatic for the children. The Bill addresses those and other concerns.

Over the past few months, I have met many of the groups involved in intercountry adoption to learn more about their concerns: the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, the overseas adoption helpline, the Adoption Forum, Childlink and many others. I put on record their help and advice to me in preparing the Bill and their invaluable work in raising awareness of intercountry adoption.

More importantly, I have been speaking to couples who have gone through the process—and who, in some cases, have brought children into the country without permission. Some of their concerns are great, and I hope that they will be tackled by the Bill. I shall return to that subject later.

So what does the Bill do? There are four key areas. First, the Bill will introduce for the first time specific provisions to regulate intercountry adoption. It will make it clear to local authorities that they have a responsibility to provide an adoption service that includes intercountry adoption.

Secondly, one of the Bill's main aims is to enable the UK to ratify the 1993 Hague convention on protection of children and co-operation in respect of intercountry adoption, in whose preparation, I am pleased to say, the UK has played an influential part. Thirdly, other provisions of the Bill will regulate adoption to prevent trafficking in children and to enable a child adopted from overseas to enjoy the same legal status as does a child adopted in the UK.

Finally, other aspects of the Bill will improve the adoption process, avoiding unnecessary delays in handling adoption applications and speeding up the process in the interests of all concerned.

I stress that the Bill is not intended to place new obstacles in the path of people who wish to adopt children from overseas. However, it will establish a clear legal framework to enable prospective adopters to adopt from abroad in a way that provides maximum protection for the child.

I shall now deal with those four areas in more detail. The UK's ratification of the 1993 Hague convention is long overdue. The convention is underpinned by the 1989 United Nations convention on the rights of the child. The countries that have ratified that convention agree to have key standards and that gives an assurance that, when adoptions proceed between those countries, everything is in the greatest possible order.

Amazingly, although we signed the convention about six years ago, we are not yet among the countries that have ratified it. Despite cross-party support there has not, to date, been parliamentary time to do so, and I hope that, today, we can start to put that right, because it must seem very odd to countries such as the Philippines, Poland and Romania, for example, which have ratified the convention and are sending their children to the UK, that the United Kingdom has not yet ratified it.

The second important measure is to tackle the bad practice—if that is the right word—of private arrangements for adoption and bringing a child into the UK for adoption without the proper authority. It is important to state that no person has a right to adopt. The Adoption Act 1976 provides that an adoption may be arranged only by a local authority or an approved adoption agency—unless the child is a blood relative of the person making the arrangements. It is an important principle that the local authority or agency must make proper assessments, proper home visits and proper approvals before that adoption can proceed. However, a person making arrangements who is not a local authority or an approved agency is not authorised to do so and is committing a criminal offence.

The Department of Health has long maintained the view that privately commissioned home study assessments, as they are known, that are made in the knowledge that they are to lead towards an intercountry adoption contravene the 1976 Act. However, some recent High Court judgments have not always reflected the Department's view. The Bill will, therefore, make it clear that privately commissioned assessments with the aim of an adoption will not be permitted, and that any person who prepares such a report or starts to make arrangements for an intercountry adoption in that way will be guilty of a criminal offence. The future of a child should not be the outcome of some private negotiations between lawyers or people who are not professionally qualified. In addition, it is planned, by regulations to follow, to tighten the laws in relation to bringing children into the country without proper procedures.

The third measure is somewhat technical, but it will mean that children adopted under the 1993 convention will receive British citizenship automatically if at least one parent is British when the adoption order is made, and is resident in the UK. That is a simple technique, which will replace the current long-drawn-out process, involving several appearances in court. It also meets the requirements of the Hague convention that a child adopted from overseas will enjoy a status at least equal to that of a child adopted in the UK.

Fourthly and finally, one of the Bill's most important aspects is its creation of a more efficient and effective process for the operation of intercountry adoption services. My discussions with parents revealed that many were dissatisfied with the service that they received from local authorities. I suppose that, as so few foreign adoptions take place, it is not surprising that good practice is, or has been, very rare. It has led to a wide variation in local authorities' performance in that area, and I strongly believe that firm guidelines and standards need to be put in place, with better training—but, above all, with a more positive attitude to intercountry adoption.

Perhaps that comment is slightly unfair on some local authorities, whose standards and practice in intercountry adoption are very high; but so many parents told me that they were intensely frustrated by the process they experienced that I must conclude that some social workers had a negative attitude to intercountry adoption. Parents felt that they were being asked unrealistic questions; they told me that, in some cases, a definite attempt was made to talk them out of the process when they first made contact with the social services department.

Inevitably, there will be some friction in the process. Prospective parents are often absolutely determined to adopt, and they are obviously very impatient. Social services rightly put the child's interests first. There is friction between two conflicting interests. However, the system needs to be much more accommodating, to help prospective adopters to provide a new home and family for some of the world's most disadvantaged children.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

The hon. Gentleman is obviously very learned on the subject, and has investigated it and taken evidence. Has he come across evidence of institutionalised prejudice in intercountry adoptions? Are there any other areas where he considers that there might be similar prejudice? I am aware of cases in Norfolk where the size of a person's body has been taken into account in deciding whether they are suitable to be an adopter.

Mr. Oaten

The hon. Gentleman's intervention could draw me into the very different path of discussing the adoption process for UK children. I know that concern about the criteria for adoption is widespread. We do hear of strange-sounding rulings, with people being turned down as adopters on the ground of their size or the fact that they smoke. However, you would rule me out of order if I took that path, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because that is an issue for a separate debate. Parents express to me their concern that the people who are interviewing them feel that it is weird and strange that a couple should want to adopt a child from a foreign country—and that is wrong. I hope that some of the measures in the Bill will change that culture and introduce training to try to iron out those problems.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take these remarks in the spirit in which they are meant because I support the Bill. Does he acknowledge that there are good reasons for regarding intercountry adoption as a measure of last resort, and that there is a need to take into account the fundamental principles in the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, concerning the child's right to be cared for by parents and to preserve his or her identity, as well as cultural, ethnic and language factors?

Mr. Oaten

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am convinced that, if a couple who have applied initially to adopt a UK baby are turned down, there is no reason why they should regard the adoption of a child from a foreign country as an easier option. If it is wrong that they should adopt a child from this country, it is wrong that they should adopt a child from any country. Children from foreign countries are not second-class citizens, and they should be entitled to the rights and protection to which children from this country are entitled. However, I argue that, as there have been few intercountry adoptions in the UK, a form of prejudice—not protection—exists, which is based on ignorance and misunderstanding of the reasons why couples may want to adopt a child from a foreign country.

Jackie Ballard (Taunton)

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend's flow. I strongly agree that there is a need for consistent good practice across local authorities in dealing with intercountry adoption. Good practice would dictate that the social worker carrying out the investigation should visit the child in the country of origin, as that is the only way to get a complete picture. That has clear resource implications for local authorities. Has my hon. Friend considered how those mights be dealt with in future?

Mr. Oaten

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The concerns of a social worker seeking reassurance that the prospective child is suitable for adoption can, to some extent, be put aside because one of the benefits of the convention is that countries that have signed it have gone through rigorous tests. For a prospective child from, for example, Romania, which is a signatory, such an inspection will have been carried out. We can be much more confident that, in the adoption of a child from Romania, rigorous tests have been carried out and that the natural parents are aware, and approve, of the adoption. That reduces the need for visits by UK social workers.

I shall highlight some of the concerns expressed by parents. On many issues, there seems to be a fundamental breakdown of communications. Charges for intercountry adoption services are certainly a cause of friction. I was surprised to discover that, although the adoption of children from this country costs nothing, if a couple want to adopt a child from a foreign country, a charge is made by social services departments for the application to go through the approval procedure.

Charges for intercountry adoption services vary from £1,500 in Essex to £3,200 in Northamptonshire. Parents rightly feel that the costs are high, especially as the route that has led them to the adoption process may have been a couple of years of expensive infertility treatment. What annoys parents even more than the costs is the wide variation throughout the country, and the lack of explanation of what the charges are for. The Bill cannot solve that problem, but I know that the Minister is sympathetic to the view that the charges need to be examined.

There is confusion about the process whereby a social services department decides whether to approve an adoption, and particularly about the production of a home study report. Parents often do not understand why they are asked so many questions, many of which are extremely personal. It must be better explained to parents why such questions need to be asked. Couples are also confused about whether they can object to aspects of the home study report or appeal against a decision.

Delays in the intercountry adoption process were one of the causes of greatest concern. Time and again, parents said to me, "This has dragged out for so long. We know the child, we have met the child, and we are desperate to make that child part of our family." They see the child growing up and they must wait, often for two years, before they can have that child. They feel that the process is bureaucratic and weighed down with layers of paperwork. I am confident that signing the international convention will reduce that bureaucracy.

The Bill cannot deal with every problem, but it aims to ensure that the same standards are applied to those seeking to adopt from overseas as are applied to the adoption of children within the UK. That is an important principle. To do otherwise would leave the UK open to the justifiable accusation of applying double standards. The provisions will enable improvements to be made to the present procedures, including the reduction of unnecessary delays.

The Bill will bring intercountry adoption within the mainstream adoption services. That will tackle some of the problems that I highlighted, by leading to increased awareness, more relevant training and higher standards. I am pleased to say that my authority, Hampshire county council, has become an expert in the field. The message must go out to other authorities that, if some can do it well, others need to improve their practice.

There are many aspects and details of the Bill that I have not covered. I hope that, if the Bill proceeds to the next stage, those can be discussed in Committee.

Above all, I want the Bill to bring a new standard and atmosphere to adoption from overseas. The message should be that it is a wonderful experience for child and new parents, alike—one that should be encouraged and developed. Controls must be put in place to ensure that the children come first, but that must be done in a professional way, taking account of the prospective parents' needs and feelings. I want all adoption agencies to take a more positive approach to intercountry adoption, to recommend people as suitable to adopt because of their qualities as adoptive parents, and not to dwell so much on their weaknesses. The perfect family does not exist.

In such a climate, we might be able to reduce, if not eliminate, cases in which people choose to bypass the system. For those who still ignore the law, the Bill sends a clear message. Bringing children into this country in the back of a car late at night through Margate will result in prosecution. Children from any country have the right to protection.

This is a tidy, well-prepared Bill. I put on record my gratitude to the Government, the Minister and his officials, who have provided every assistance needed since I decided to take on the Bill, which had Government support some time ago. I know that senior officials in the Department of Health working in the field of adoption have been disappointed by the delay in ratifying the Hague treaty. Today, we can put that right. Families wanting to adopt are sometimes frustrated by the system. Today, we can start to put that right. Finally, children adopted from other countries should have the same rights and protection as British adopted children. Today, we can start to put that right. I commend the Bill to the House.

9.56 am
Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on introducing the Bill. If all goes well, he may join the select band of hon. Members who, when they retire in 50 or 100 years, can say that they have been personally responsible for passing a Bill, something that not all of us will be able to claim. I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman has chosen for his Bill a subject of enormous emotional importance to the families concerned. It is not just a technical adjustment; it will make a real difference to people's lives.

I support the Bill, but I shall raise a couple of issues that were touched on by the hon. Gentleman in his introductory remarks, and others that have not so far been addressed.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) mentioned, intercountry adoption is a somewhat controversial subject outside the House to an extent that is not always apparent in our discussions. Between the parties there is broad agreement that we need to implement the Hague convention and regulate adoption in a sensible way.

As we have heard, prospective adoptive parents have found the system slow and bureaucratic or simply unfair. The conditions for being an adoptive parent seem to be so vastly in excess of what is expected of natural parents that they cannot help feeling that they are being unreasonably obstructed. That applies particularly in the case of intercountry adoption. The hon. Member for Winchester rightly stressed that a child in a foreign country is not a second-class citizen. The same standards should apply.

However, people see children in Romania, to take a well-known example, living in appalling conditions. When a local authority social services official quizzes them closely about their smoking habits, income or other aspects that they might consider secondary, they feel that the system is putting bureaucratic obstruction in the way of a vast improvement in the standard of living of such a child.

We recognise the need for serious purpose and the need to avoid an automatic assumption that, merely by moving to a country where the income of the family will be higher, the child will be better off. There are examples in other countries where such thinking has gone badly wrong. In Switzerland, a systematic effort was made after the war to persuade gypsy families to allow their children to be adopted, because it was thought to be more satisfactory for a child to have a stable background rather than a travelling background. It is now generally accepted in Switzerland that that policy was disastrously mistaken and that a lot of human misery resulted.

I have a small reservation. It is widely thought that the British system for checking the suitability of adoptive parents is full of unreasonable obstacles, so there will be some unease about extending it to intercountry adoption. There is a danger that a system that, to some extent, is perceived as over-bureaucratic will be extended to cover all possible adoptions. That is not a reason not to act, because we need a regulated framework, but it is a reason for welcoming the stress laid by the hon. Member for Winchester on the need for as sensible and flexible a process as possible for home adoption as well as for intercountry adoption.

We think of a normal adoption case as involving a couple who want to have a child of their own, but are unable to do so. They go to an agency and say, "We want to have a child. Please find one for us," perhaps according to one or two criteria. The other extreme, which is also referred to in the Bill, is a case within a particular family in which it is thought appropriate for another couple within that family to take over the care of the child.

I draw attention, however, to what might be described as the "middle case", which is perhaps in danger of falling between two stools. There may, for example, be a close relationship, such as long-standing friendship, but no family tie, between the couple who want to adopt and the child. The classic case involves the parents being killed, perhaps in a car accident; no other family member being suited to look after the child; close friends of the late parents offering to adopt the child; and that offer being greatly welcomed by the family.

As far as I can see, article 29 of the convention could make such an adoption illegal. It states: There shall be no contact between the prospective adoptive parents and the child's parents or any other person who has care of the child until the requirements of Article 4, sub-paragraphs a to c, and Article 5, sub-paragraph a, have been met, unless the adoption takes place within a family or unless the contact is in compliance with the conditions established by the component authority of the State of origin. The words conditions established by the competent authority could provide a way of meeting that objection, but that is dependent on what those conditions might be. Although we obviously cannot control what conditions may be set down by other countries, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to allow for the possibility of previous contact—in good faith and due to long-standing friendship between the potential adoptive parents and the family of the child involved—when we consider our own regulations for such situations.

Another issue is not addressed by the Bill, and cannot easily be encompassed by it. The other country involved may be either not a signatory to the convention or in a state of chaos, perhaps because of civil war, which makes it unable to fulfil the conditions laid down by the convention. In respect of the first example, I presume that the current arrangements for intercountry adoption will continue to apply. Unfortunately, that means that there will still be a loophole. It will be possible, following the current procedure, to attempt to adopt a child from, say, Papua New Guinea if it has not yet signed the convention. I understand that the convention applies only to cases in which the child is a citizen of a signatory country.

Mr. Oaten

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is concern that not all countries are covered by the convention, but the Department of Health and others are doing a great deal of work to persuade as many countries as possible to be part of it. I hope that many cases and countries will be covered by the convention, but the law cannot be bypassed and it will certainly protect children, even those coming from non-convention countries. It will still be illegal to traffick, so there will be no way in which countries can avoid those procedures by not being convention countries.

Dr. Palmer

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification, although it is not clear to me exactly how a couple should proceed if, for reasons of friendship, they want to adopt a child from a country that is not yet a signatory. Perhaps that will be addressed in later discussions.

If the other country is a signatory, but is unable to fulfil the terms of the convention due to maladministration or current disturbances within it, there may be an additional problem. I wonder whether we could—perhaps under article 29—allow for some exemption in such circumstances. The hon. Member for Winchester referred to the current situation in Yugoslavia. I understand that, if a couple in Britain were willing to adopt an orphan from Kosovo, but Yugoslavia, which is currently the legal authority responsible for Kosovo, was unwilling to support that process despite being a signatory to the convention, no progress could be made. Perhaps he will consider that aspect and refer to it in his response.

Despite those relatively technical reservations, I very much welcome the direction of the Bill. I commend it to the House and congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester on introducing it.

10.8 am

Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on securing a place in the ballot and on his choice of a Bill that will make an important contribution to improving children's welfare. I also welcome the support of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health, who has responsibilities in this area. He is strongly committed to improving the quality of adoption services in this country. I should declare an interest. Before I was elected to Parliament, I worked for a local authority in a team specialising in adoption and fostering, and I accept that that may have influenced my views. Adoption is an emotive issue, and about one in 10 people in this country have been affected either directly or indirectly by the experience. Public views are often defined by personal experience. The Bill is welcome because it will provide, for the first time, a proper legal framework for intercountry adoption. As the hon. Member for Winchester said, the present arrangements are open to abuse, do not encourage high standards in adoption and are frustrating to prospective adopters. Intercountry adoption is increasing. In 1993, there were 101 such adoptions; in 1998, there were 258, and 38 took place in the north of England. Every year, approximately 2,000 adoption orders are made in this country, so intercountry adoption is not such an insignificant part. The quality of those adoptions and the welfare of the children involved deserve serious attention. The growth in intercountry adoption is understandable, because couples who wish to adopt find that the number of children available for adoption in the UK is declining. They may face long waits, especially for babies, or find that the children who are available are older than they would wish or have complex backgrounds, present difficult emotional problems or have serious handicaps. The adoption of a child from another country appears to offer that child an opportunity for a permanent family and, at the same time, provide the much desired family for the couple or person seeking adoption. The 1993 Hague convention on protection of children and co-operation in respect of intercountry adoption recognises that intercountry adoption may offer the advantage of a permanent family to a child for whom a suitable family cannot be found in his or her state of origin. Such children may face a childhood in institutional care and a lifetime in poverty. However, intercountry adoption is a controversial area, because it essentially involves the adoption of children from poor countries by people from the relatively affluent west. I found on the internet last night 100 sites set up by agencies in what is called the US market offering to facilitate intercountry adoption of children from all over the world. One agency offered 750 children. The prospect of such large-scale intercountry adoption developing in this country is alarming. The hon. Member for Winchester mentioned that people were concerned about paying the fee for a home study report, but the prices charged by agencies abroad vary from $10,000 to $22,000, depending on the child available. The younger the child, the more expensive the agency fee. It is indeed a market, and it is privately financed. If people are worried about the cost of home study reports, they are unlikely to be able to afford the agency fees in the countries where the children reside. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the cost in this country should be uniform; we should ensure that the cost is not higher for someone living in Manchester than it is for someone living in Norfolk. As I have said, the issue is controversial. The British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering say in one of their leaflets that, although adoption may be the answer for one individual, it will never be the solution for meeting the needs of millions of children in families in situations of extreme deprivation. It expresses the concern that, if large-scale intercountry adoption programmes were introduced, they could prevent or delay the development of proper local child care programmes. It expresses a special concern about intercountry adoption as a response to war and conflict which may result in huge numbers of displaced children for whom it may be difficult to establish whether they have any living relatives.

Dr. Palmer

As I understand it, the provisions of the Bill would meet that objection in that they would permit an intercountry adoption only if a thorough investigation had taken place into the child's circumstances.

Ms Coffey

As I understand it, if the country in which the child is residing has ratified the Hague convention, everyone can be sure that a proper investigation has been carried out to ensure that the child is available for adoption. The concern is that, in countries that have not ratified it, one cannot be sure that the proper investigations have taken place. We may have got our procedures right, but the countries offering children may not, especially in times of conflict when children may become separated from parents who cannot be found.

Others have concerns about children being removed from their country of origin and contact with their culture. They question whether a solution that appears in the short term to offer so much to parents and child will, in the long term, cause difficulties as those children grow through adolescence into adulthood. We should not underestimate the difficulties of intercountry adoption, and of adoption in general. It is not an easy option and can raise issues of identity for the child in later life.

Adoption practice in this country has changed and parents are encouraged to help their adoptive children to understand their identity by being open with them about their adoptive status from an early age. Meetings can be arranged between the mother offering the child for adoption and the adoptive parents. Adoptive parents can be encouraged to keep mementoes of the child's background, including pictures of their birth families, and—in some cases—to keep contact with relatives. Gone are the days when children discovered their adoptive status later in life and when the idea of adoption was to act as if, for all intents and purposes, the adoptive parents were the birth parents and the child's past identity was wiped out as if it did not exist. For all of us, the question of who we are is answered in part by where we came from and the family stories that give us a sense of continuity with the past and our place in the future. That is important to ensure the success of adoption, and can be difficult in intercountry adoption, but not impossible.

I do not believe that the issues that I have outlined can be resolved by an ideological approach. For a child without a caring family to grow up in, having a happy, loving family in this country and being offered opportunities and a real chance in life are much the best outcome, especially if the existing culture can offer only poverty and early death. On the other hand, for a child to be placed in a family who offer inadequate or abusive parenting and to end up in care in one of our institutions, facing a poor future, does not seem such a good outcome; that child might have been better left in an orphanage.

I am pleased to support the Bill, not because it is designed to encourage large-scale intercountry adoptions, but because it will improve the quality of such adoptions to ensure their success. It would amend existing adoption legislation to make it clear that the adoption service provided by local authorities includes all adoptions, not just those made in Great Britain. It would mean that voluntary agencies wishing to be approved for intercountry adoptions must be approved for all adoptions and that standards of assessment for people wishing to be approved will be the same, regardless of the country of origin of the child. That has not always been the case and local authorities have sometimes viewed the preparation of a report on a couple applying to adopt in another country as having a lower priority and have given less attention to it, so that couples seeking such a report often become frustrated. That is because intercountry adoption has been seen as outside mainstream work. The Bill would put it back into the mainstream, and that can only be of benefit to children and increase the chances of successful adoption.

The quality of the adoptions is key and we must continue to drive up standards generally, and learn from adoption casualties. Those casualties exist because adoption is not always a case of a family walking off into the sunset and living happily ever after. Some of the stories of adopted children make it clear that that is far from the case. Apart from adoption breakdowns, many families live together in chronic unhappiness and may wish that the adoption never took place. We must learn from that experience, and from the experience of agencies such as After Adoption, which is a voluntary agency in Greater Manchester which gives counselling to those who have been affected by adoption. Unless we learn from experience and improve standards for adoption in this country, we shall not ensure that intercountry adoptions are successful, which is what the Bill seeks to achieve.

The last time I asked the Department of Health for statistics was prior to 1997, which is a key date for the House. The statistics it kept on adoptions were fairly minimal, particularly those on adoption breakdowns, which would help us to understand better the factors that indicate success. That is an important issue, because, if people are preparing reports on potential adoptive parents and are asking questions about their lives and personal relationships, they should know why they need to ask those questions. Indeed, sometimes I wondered about some of the questions that I was having to ask. If we understood the key factors in predicting a successful outcome, the home study reports could be constructed so that questions were pertinent and served a useful purpose.

The quality of information about successful adoptions should be improved, as should the standards of adoption in this country. A number of agencies apply good practice, but that can be achieved only with proper dissemination of information. It should be made clear that we want high standards, and that hon. Members do not give this matter a low priority.

I particularly welcome the clause that makes it a criminal offence not to comply with the regulations. It is horrifying that people who have been assessed as unsuitable can commission poor-quality, private home study reports that describe them in glowing terms. That clause will also stop illegal trafficking. As I understand it, at the moment prosecutions, can only take place within six months of a couple committing the offence of bringing the child into the country. All couples need to do to escape prosecution, therefore, is to hide the child for six months. The clause will put a stop to that.

I welcome the Bill. It is important that the House debates these issues that affect children. I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester, and I am happy to support his Bill.

10.23 am
Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

I, too, support the Bill. Indeed, I have yet to hear anyone speak against it. I hope that other hon. Members will co-operate in giving it a speedy passage. Much as we want to speak at length on the important principles raised by the Bill, it is necessary that the House moves on.

It is appropriate that the Bill is proposed in the 10th anniversary year of the United Nations declaration on the rights of the child. I know that the Bill has strong support from the United Nations Children's Fund. As UNICEF said in its literature supporting the Bill, it was only after the second world war that intercountry adoption took off and UNICEF was formed.

It is worth bearing in mind the rationale for intercountry adoption. In India, which has the largest child population of any country in the world, there is a presumption that local adoption is preferable. I am sure that that is right. It should not be assumed that, because intercountry adoption might provide a child with a wealthier family in a wealthier country, that would be better for the child.

I welcome the principles in the Hague convention. Articles 4 and 5 get to the heart of the matter. The first points out that the decision to adopt intercountry should be governed by the best interests of the child, and specifically excludes any monetary consideration.

Article 5 deals with the suitability of parents. We must face some hard truths. Some parents may be suitable, but not as suitable as others. They may not succeed in applying to adopt of a child in this country, but they may, nevertheless, meet basic standards on their ability as parents. It may be appropriate, therefore, to consider them in relation to the adoption of children from other countries. Why may that be so?

Mr. Dawson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. St. Aubyn

Let me develop my point.

In common with many thousands of school leavers, I worked for a year as a volunteer in a children's home in the third world. Children cared for in an institution in a developing country may face a far better prospect in life if they are taken out of the institution and given a home life by a family in this country. Although some parents may not be regarded as suitable for a British child, such a family could provide a warm, home environment.

None of us can claim to be perfect parents. Local authorities, on which the Bill places a responsibility, must be given clear and unequivocal guidelines by the Department so that they understand that they have a remit to provide not only the very best families for adopted children, but a wide range of families who meet clear, minimum standards, rather than harder tests. Some local authorities impose unreasonable tests. They may involve questions about the life style or the health of the family which perhaps do not test the ability to provide proper parenting.

Mr. Dawson

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me a chance to respond to his extraordinary comments. I should like him to develop the idea that he seems to have that there are some qualities that families adopting British children need to have that are not required of families who adopt children from abroad. What are those qualities? If he cannot give me a clear answer, he is taking a naive and extremely dangerous course.

Mr. St. Aubyn

That intervention shows why we must listen carefully to what each other says. That is not what I said. I was picking up the comment of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), who said that potential parents who were wrong for adoption of a child from this country were also not suitable to adopt a child from another country. I am sure that we all agree on that. Equally, those who are unequivocally right for adoption of children in this country would also be right for adoption of children from another country. But there is a third group of parents who are up to the mark for adoption in this country, but who are not as good as some of the other parents wanting to adopt the limited number of children available for adoption here. That third group should be taken into account by local authorities.

Mr. Oaten

This is an important point, and the House is in danger of misunderstanding the hon. Gentleman. Is he suggesting that there is a class A and a class B set of parents? If so, that would certainly lead us down a dangerous path.

Mr. St. Aubyn

The word "class" left the hon. Gentleman's lips, not mine. I do not think that any class element is involved in the performance of parents, or in any other aspect of the Bill. The process of adoption is a selection process, and in every selection process choices must be made.

The hon. Gentleman may consider this politically incorrect, but the fact is that, although many couples in this country are capable of becoming very good parents, not all of them will have the opportunity to adopt a British child, because a limited number are available for adoption. Every year, however, 20,000 children are adopted intercountry, and such parents may be able to provide excellent homes for some of them, although they might not be the first choice of their local authorities if a child became available in their area. That is worlds apart from thinking in terms of different classes of parent for

different classes of child. We regard the rights of the child as universal: that is the point of the Hague convention, and that is why we shall support the Bill.

Mr. Dawson

With the greatest respect, no one who regards the rights of the child as universal can argue that adopters of lesser quality, who do not meet the standards required for the adoption of British children, are suitable to adopt children from other countries. That is racist.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is in danger of being caught out by his emotions. He should view the matter in a more detached way.

We must bear in mind the interests of a child reared in an institution in a developing country. Having worked in such an institution, I can say that such a child has nothing like the life style and opportunities that a caring family home can provide, even one in a country foreign to the child. In this country, the demand among childless couples is far greater than the supply of children suitable for adoption. Local authorities must be very conscious of that in the running of their systems and the drawing up of lists of adopters.

Dr. Gibson

Are not differences between life chances in this country as great as the difference between the place where the hon. Gentleman worked and somewhere in this country? Every day, we read of differentials between groups in this country, and the differing opportunities for young people and, indeed, people of all ages. People have different backgrounds and different life chances depending on where they live. How does the hon. Gentleman measure differences between two countries as against differences between the north and the south of England?

Mr. St. Aubyn

That is well beyond the remit of the Bill. All we can say is that children in unfortunate circumstances have an even more pressing need for a good family home. In this country, few children are in institutional care, which creates a different balance between supply and demand.

I am sorry that the Bill does not provide better guidance in one regard. I am thinking of cases in which, after the proper procedures have taken place and a child has been adopted in this country in the belief that his or her family are deceased, a family member comes to light. There was such a case a few years ago: a child from the former Yugoslavia was adopted in this country, and it was then discovered that she had a grandfather living in Switzerland.

Under the Bill, if a competent court determines that there are reasons for an adoption order to be cancelled, it will be cancelled. What is to be done if a competent court in this country decides that an order should not be cancelled, while an equally competent court in the country where the family member resides—Which is also signed up to the convention as a participating state—decides that it should be cancelled, and that the child should return to live with its natural relations? The case to which I referred earlier caused great difficulty. The eventual judgment showed the wisdom of Solomon and managed to balance all the interests involved, but that was a specific case. How, in general terms, is a conflict between two competent courts to be resolved?

I am pleased that this adoption Bill covers intercountry aspects, but it is now well over 20 years since we had a fully fledged adoption Bill. The last Government tried to introduce one with cross-party support, but it fell before the last election owing to a collapse in interparty co-operation, which was very regrettable. There is an urgent need for the Adoption Act 1976 to be revised. I hope that, in passing the Bill, the House does not miss the point that there are many United Kingdom-related aspects of adoption, and that the passing of the Bill is no excuse for deferring action on those aspects at the earliest opportunity.

10.36 am
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

I am grateful for the chance to speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) both on his good fortune—although I suppose that we should not congratulate people on having had good luck, especially when we have lost out—and on having the wisdom to take on such an important Bill. I listened with great interest to his excellent speech. As a member of the ex-social workers' fraternity—but not because of that—I also wish to associate myself with another excellent speech, that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey).

While I am in congratulatory mode, let me congratulate the Government, and the Minister in particular. The Bill, which is long overdue, is another example of the Government's commitment to children. Last week, we considered the Youth Justice and Criminal. Evidence Bill, which enshrines crucial parts of the Pigot report, published 10 years ago, and tremendous work is being done for children who must be looked after. Moreover, the Prime Minister has made a personal commitment to ending child poverty early in the next century.

I know that many Members wish to speak, but let me add that I am convinced that, before long, the Government will pursue their own logic and establish a United Kingdom commissioner for children's rights, as well as withdrawing all reservations on the United Nations convention on children's rights.

I thought that this would prove to be the least controversial Bill of the year, and in terms of its substantive nature that is highly likely; but I must tell the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) that, although I entirely agree with him about the need for a new adoption Act, I hope that he will reflect on some of what he said earlier. It leads us down a dangerous road. Such a system, if implemented—which it will not be—could put children coming into this country at grave risk of abuse.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I do not know what remarks the hon. Gentleman is attributing to me. All I am saying is that, as well as those parents who are suitable and successfully adopt children in this country, there are other parents who may be suitable—who almost certainly are suitable—but whom local authorities are failing to identify. That is the nub of those remarks. Surely he would agree that that is happening in this country.

Mr. Dawson

I do not want desperately to pursue that line, but what the hon. Gentleman has just said is slightly different from what he said earlier, where he implied—in fact, he did more than imply; he stated that local government and social service departments need not be so rigorous in their assessment of prospective adopters of children from abroad. Perhaps he will get the opportunity to clarify the matter, but it takes us away from the substance of the Bill.

Adoption is profound and irrevocable. It is a great necessity in the protection of children nationally and internationally. I am pleased that the Bill enables the UK to ratify the 1993 Hague convention on protection of children and co-operation in respect of intercountry adoption. As the hon. Member for Guildford acknowledged, it is founded on the UN convention on the rights of the child, in particular, article 21.

It is important to reflect on the fact that we are talking about not the rights of adults to adopt, but the rights of children. Article 21 clearly sets out to ensure that the adoption of a child is authorised only by competent authorities, recognising that intercountry adoption may be considered as an alternative means of child care if the child cannot be placed in a foster or adoptive family or cannot be cared for in his or her country in a suitable manner.

The article aims to ensure that the child who is adopted in another country enjoys safeguards and standards that are equivalent to those on national adoption, and that intercountry adoption placement does not result in improper financial gain. Those are important issues on which to reflect.

We have heard some criticism of social service authorities. I would be the first to criticise many such authorities, but many of the problems to which people allude are to do with resources, pressures on the authorities and the necessary complexity and rigour of the assessment of prospective adoptive parents. There may be a case for examining those procedures, but let no one imagine that they should be watered down, or that we should not look carefully into the most personal, private and important aspects of the adults' relationships and ability to look after and to adopt a child.

I do not want to make too many more remarks. We have to examine intercountry adoption and the backing of article 21 in the light of other parts of the UN convention. Article 23 requires due regard to be paid to the desirability of continuity in a child's upbringing and to the child's ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic background. Article 7 relates to the child's right to know and to be cared for by parents and family, and article 8 to the child's right to preserve identity.

I support the Bill absolutely. It will represent in this country a great improvement in services for children who come from other countries. I hope that it will also represent part of the Government's commitment to ensure that the Hague convention is ratified throughout the world. I do not look to the Bill to develop intercountry adoption services. Such services need to be clarified and to be part of the local government mainstream, but the answer for children who live in dire poverty and distress is to sort out the problems in those countries, to develop services there and to reduce the need for intercountry adoption. However, while such adoption is desirable and in the best interests of particular children, it should occur.

I look to those services continuing in the light of crucial concepts, which are already embodied in the Children Act 1989. They include the paramountcy principle of the child's best interests. Where appropriate—bearing in mind the child's age—we must also take close account of the child's wishes and feelings. I am pleased to have had the chance to support the Bill and hope that it will have a good passage thorough the House.

10.47 am
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

I do not want to detain the House long because I detect a large element of cross-party agreement on the Bill. Indeed, the way in which it has been debated is a credit to the proceedings of the House. It is a good day for the Chamber. It is exactly the sort of legislation that can be championed by a private Member. It brings credit to the House, which is often lambasted for yah-boo politics across the Dispatch Boxes. To that end, I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) not only on introducing the Bill, but on the way in which he put his case.

Clearly, the country needs a proper legal framework for intercountry adoption; no one here disagrees with that. On behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition, I give the Bill an overall and general welcome. The sooner we get it into Committee and can look at its detail, the better. At heart, we all agree on the principle that lies behind it. We think that we will be living in a better country and that it will be better for children who are adopted from another country if we can get the Bill on to the statute book.

One thing needs to be said, even though anyone who has thought about the issue deeply will, perhaps even indignantly, take it as a given: adoption is a proper, decent and commendable arrangement to which no stigma or disapproval should attach. Some people still get a bit sniffy about it and think that those people who adopt a child are a little odd. That view has to be slammed. Adoption is honourable, worthy and responsible.

The hon. Member for Winchester stayed clear of debating at length existing domestic arrangements for adoption. As my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) said, perhaps those merit further debate and consideration. I do not think that intercountry adoption can be totally separated from intracountry adoption. They are two arms of the same procedure, for the same purpose.

I think that all hon. Members—after reading our constituency mailbag or having spoken to people affected by adoption—still have concerns that there are too many unhappy tales of the way in which social services have conducted their scrutiny, and either approved or disapproved of potential parents for adoption purposes. I am very familiar with one case in which both parents—one black, one white; both graduates—were told that they could not adopt a child because it was not thought appropriate that mixed-race parentage should apply. We want to ensure that all decisions based on such thinking are eradicated in the United Kingdom.

The current domestic scrutiny process was perhaps at the root of the misunderstanding that I detected between the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson)—whose very first intervention was spot on—and my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford.

The House should reflect on the fact that some people feel quite strongly that adoption within one's own country is a more natural, appropriate and comfortable state of affairs than actively seeking to adopt a child from another country, for whatever reasons. There are serious issues on both sides of that argument, and they require serious

thought, and perhaps a bit more serious debate, hand in hand with an understanding of how social services should behave and assess people in approving adoption in the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer)—who has left the Chamber—made a very thoughtful speech, in which he warned of the dangers of believing that all adoptions from a poorer to a wealthier country were invariably better for the child. He clearly put a lot of thought into the issue, which undoubtedly will be raised in Committee.

The hon. Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) explained why intercountry adoption was growing. However, as I said, I hope that the House will accept that many people hold the view that intercountry adoption should be the exception rather than the rule. None the less, a proper legal framework is required. The hon. Lady, too, clearly had her doubts about the appropriateness of intercountry adoption, particularly as a solution to the plight of those who have been displaced by conflict.

Perhaps I should say, in passing, that the interest shown by my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford in the issue might be explained by the fact that he has so many children of his own—I am told that it is a growing band.

The issue is a deeply emotional and extremely important one. However, as one may have detected in the widespread agreement on it in the House, it is not an essentially contentious issue. The Bill's detail will be considered in Committee, and I hope that those proceedings will demonstrate the same high standards of debate and thought that, so far, today's debate has shown.

The Opposition have some concerns about the growth of intercountry adoption. However, we welcome the Bill's introduction as a way of introducing a proper framework of law for future practice, for the benefit of children.

10.53 am
Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)

I add my congratulations to those already offered to the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on promoting the Bill. I also recognise the importance of the consultations conducted by the previous Government, and the hard work of all those who formulated the Hague convention, which has gained so much support in other countries. If ever there was an act of international human solidarity, the Hague convention is it; it is the exact opposite of ethnic cleansing.

Intercountry adoption allows a child without a family to be accepted, loved and supported by parents, regardless of nationality and national boundaries—and I say that although I accept all the concerns expressed by hon. Members on the need not to expand intercountry adoption. When possible, children should remain in the country in which they were born.

I am pleased to note that the Hague convention is based on the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. The Hague convention—and now the Bill—is intended essentially to safeguard children, and to ensure that adoption is in their long-term good, not simply to meet the short-term needs of adults.

The hon. Member for Winchester and other hon. Members with a relevant professional background have outlined the Bill's legal basis and importance in clarifying the issues for the 60 countries—including our own—that we hope shall soon ratify the convention and accept procedures and regulations to be followed by everyone.

Simply knowing which countries have reciprocal adoptive agreements will be a huge step forward. Parents sometimes spend months in corresponding, making telephone calls and preparing to visit a particular country, only to discover that that country will not allow intercountry adoptions with the United Kingdom. The possibility of clear and consistent guidance and advice would offer those parents enormous relief. Social services and solicitors in the United Kingdom, and high commissioners and consulates abroad, should all work from the same script and to the same basic guidelines.

Recently, I heard of a British solicitor who unintentionally caused unnecessary work, thereby causing delay and higher costs, because he was not clear on the procedures. I have also recently heard of a high commissioner who almost invalidated 18 months of planning and negotiation by claiming that a medical document was not necessary, whereas it was vital before the child could leave the country of origin.

Costs are another concern, and have already been mentioned in the debate. Although the Bill cannot be prescriptive, it does address the issue of adoption costs and other expenses—which are vital in all adoption work. There are very high costs for parents involved in intercountry adoption, and they should have more information on those costs. There will also have to be some standardisation of costs, which should perhaps be abolished in some cases.

As hon. Members have said, social services charge for home visits. As we also know, charges vary tremendously from one social services department to another. In one case, a social services department charged £3,000 for adoption services, to which £500 was added to cover the social worker's travel costs. That is the type of daunting first hurdle faced by prospective parents, who need fairness and clarity. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) said, those costs continue.

Perhaps the greatest variable is the legal agency fees that are charged in the country of origin. Based on my inquiries, those charges seem to range from £250 to £18,000. I am not suggesting that we are able to dictate legal costs—we cannot do it nationally, so we shall certainly not do it internationally—but I trust that, with the ratification of the Hague convention and streamlining, such costs can at least be standardised. Certainly in some cases, those costs should fall.

Families will welcome the proposed amendment to nationality legislation, allowing children of a convention adoption to enter the country as British citizens, and for the procedure in the United Kingdom to take six months rather than one year. I do not think that the possible vulnerability of a child in that first year is fully appreciated. After years of preparing to bring a child to the UK, a further year of legal and social services scrutiny is daunting. Practical issues such as child care benefit and maternity leave also need careful consideration.

Mutual support and continuing guidance for adoptive parents and adopted children would be welcomed by those to whom I have spoken. One welcome consequence of the Bill will be that organisations such as the association of families who have adopted from abroad and Childlink will flourish and there may be more local groups to add support. When the process of intercountry adoption is less fraught and traumatic, families will be able to think and plan for the future with more confidence.

One family to whom I have spoken made a plea for the recognition of the value of intercountry adoption rather than the reluctant support from social service workers that we have heard about and the more hostile, suspicious and even contemptuous attitudes of others. The Bill, with all-party support, will send a clear message to all those involved that the House recognises and values the commitment of families who have been brought together through intercountry adoption and wishes them well.

I do not underestimate the challenges that the arrival, by birth or adoption, of a child from another country brings to any family. The challenges and rewards of adopting a child from abroad are similar in some ways, but very different in others. With so much racial tension and ethnic cleansing dominating our news, the Bill could pave the way for greater international understanding. One mother has told me that she recently took her seven-year-old son back to see the country in which he was born and that the whole family has a growing interest in, and appreciation of, that country.

11.2 am

Mr. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on introducing the Bill. I do not know him well, but his choice of Bill, having been fortunate enough to obtain such a prominent position in the ballot, says much about his priorities and values. If the Bill is passed, it will bring down the curtain on 10 years of detailed consultation and debate, helping to put in place a legal framework for this important issue. Adoption law is governed mainly by the Adoption Act 1976. At that time, intercountry adoption was not the issue that it is today.

Several hon. Members have said that this is not a contentious issue, but it is a complex one, not only in UK law, but because the measures have to work internationally. The Bill will affect relatively few children and families, but it should still be a priority for the House, because the children involved are in a particularly vulnerable position and they are a growing group. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) gave some figures earlier. I believe that the number of children involved has increased from around 100 in 1993 to 300 now. In the region that my hon. Friend and I represent, the number of children involved has increased dramatically from six to 38 during that time. We have to get the procedures right for all those children.

Getting the procedures right is not easy. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), I confess to being a member of the honourable band of ex-social workers who now occupy the Labour Benches. Much of my 15 years as a social worker was spent in residential social work. For several years I was the officer in charge of a residential assessment centre. I was responsible for managing the reception of children into care. Sometimes that was done in a planned way, but often it was done in an unplanned way in the middle of the night or after emergency court proceedings. That could be distressing for all concerned. I managed the team that assessed the needs of particular children. I worked with colleagues in evaluating the options available for the children and then initiating and supporting placements for them. Sometimes, happily, those placements would be back at home with their own family. On other occasions, they would be foster placements and on others they would rightly be in another form of residential care.

I risk stating the obvious when I say that I learned two things in particular during those years in residential social work. First, every child is unique. Each child has their own history, their own personality and their own talents. The interplay of nature and nurture, the impact of deprivation and abuse and the response of each child to interest, love and support are different in every case. That individuality can be even more pronounced and important in cases of intercountry adoption.

Secondly, I learned what I might call the golden rule of child care, which is that the welfare of the child must always be paramount. That is a key issue in family placements, be they foster placements or adoptions. The child needs shelter, warmth, security and love. The family also needs to love and to be loved. They want to provide physically and emotionally for the child in their care and to find the unique fulfilment that parenthood brings. I do not agree with those who argue that that should all be done only for altruistic reasons. The needs of the adopting or fostering family must be recognised, because family placements are successful only with such a two-way relationship. However, the welfare of the child must always take precedence over any other interests. I am sure that, like me, other hon. Members who have been involved in social work remember couples who were excellent and had much to offer, but who were not suitable for particular children to whom they may have been introduced. We cannot afford to get that wrong with adoption, because the process creates a permanent legal relationship between the child and the adoptive parents and severs all legal ties with the birth parents. It is the most significant decision that anybody can take about a child.

We have heard that intercountry adoption is a growing issue. Ease of travel makes it simpler and telecommunications also play a part. We regularly see distressing and moving images on television of children in desperate situations—in Romanian orphanages, the child victims in Bosnia, the street children of Latin America or the displaced refugee children from Kosovo. However, the issue cannot be left to emotion and personal decision. We need a properly regulated process and institutions that can judge the fitness of families and the appropriateness of a child being placed for adoption. Our institutions and procedures should be able to speed up the process when necessary, but they also need to be able to stop the process if it is not correct.

In preparing for the debate, I have looked at several cases of intercountry adoption on which the High Court has been asked to rule. They prove beyond doubt the need for clear procedures and regulation. The first case is that of a British couple who adopted a child in El Salvador. The couple were too old to adopt children in the United Kingdom and went to El Salvador where they paid a lawyer £5,000 to effect the adoption of the child. The child was adopted under that country's law. I make no judgment about the couple—I do not know them and have never met them. The House will be interested to know that the judge ruled in favour of adoption, in the best interests of the child. However, even a cursory glance at the case would show hon. Members that it was a far from satisfactory way for a child to be adopted.

The second case involves a Bosnian baby, whose family was attacked in 1992 and whose mother and various family members were killed. The father went missing and the child was placed in an orphanage and, while there, was introduced to a British couple. They brought the child to England to receive medical attention. In December 1993, they applied to adopt the child. Incredibly, no guardian ad litem was appointed; it was publicly known—so the court would have known—that the Red Cross was opposed to the adoption of war orphans; and the court had no proof that the child was free for adoption. Incredibly, nevertheless, in January 1994, an adoption order was made. Later that year, members of that little girl's family began to re-emerge. They applied to the court for a contact order and, eventually, appealed against the adoption order. The outcome was that the girl was made a ward of court and placed with the couple as foster parents. However, again, we observe a system and a procedure that, I argue, is deeply flawed.

The third case is that of a couple in Pakistan who made a gift of their unborn child to a childless Pakistani couple living in the UK. When the child was born, the childless couple went to live in Pakistan, staying there for three years. They then returned to England bringing the child with them; the child was an illegal entrant to this country. They applied for adoption, but were turned down. The judge ruled that public policy took priority over the child's needs. The couple appealed and won because, ultimately, the decision and the final judgment was that the child's welfare came first—one might argue that that was right—and was best served by being placed with that family.

I bring those cases to the attention of the House because it shows that even the procedures and processes that are in place in the 1990s are not acceptable. The hon. Member for Winchester referred to the growing number of cases of children involved in intercountry adoptions that begin under the cover of darkness—I think he gave the number as 100. It is probably impossible to estimate how many such cases there are, because we simply do not know; it would not surprise me if the number was greater than 100. Children are being bought and sold, and relationships are being initiated and maintained in a wholly illegal way. It is vital that there are proper procedures and regulations; we must have competent authorities and organisations, and effective law.

Some argue that this is all red tape—busy social workers, lawyers and others getting in the way of human contact in this important human process. However, I argue strongly that we need proper regulation of these matters because, ultimately, we are dealing with the protection of vulnerable children. We must carry that out properly.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I am listening carefully and with great interest to the hon. Gentleman, who obviously has extensive knowledge of the subject. In relation to the first case that he mentioned—the couple who would have been too old to adopt under UK regulations—is he implying that, in all cases, if a couple is too old, in the judgment of a local authority, to adopt a British child, they are too old to adopt a child from an overseas country, even though they might have attributes and qualities that make them especially well-suited to adopt such a child?

Mr. Goggins

That echoes some of the earlier exchanges in the debate. We cannot have one rule for children in this country and another for children from other countries. There must be one rule for one and all. Indeed, we have a universal declaration relating to that matter. That important point needs to be emphasised and I welcome the opportunity to underline it.

As many hon. Members have already pointed out, the Bill would enable the Government to ratify the 1993 Hague convention on international adoption. As has also been pointed out, the UK helped to draw up the convention and we have signed it, but are unable to ratify it because of the current legal position. If the Bill becomes law, we will be able to ratify it, which will be welcome.

The convention appears to me to combine high principle with common sense. It underlines several important points. It stresses that a child's development takes place best in a family where he or she can experience "happiness, love and understanding"—in the words of the convention. It states that everything should be done to support a child within his or her own family. It is important that such statements should be included in the convention, but obviously it focuses mainly on intercountry adoption.

The convention formalises the responsibilities of central authorities, in both the state of origin of the child and the receiving country, and charges them with some important responsibilities. The first is that they ensure that the child is adoptable. Secondly, they must ensure that a placement in the state of origin has already been considered. Thirdly, they must ensure that if a placement outside the country of origin is being considered, it is in the best interests of the child. Fourthly, they must ensure that consent is given to the adoption procedure and that, when the child is of a sufficient age, the child's consent is also given. That important point has not been strongly made in the debate so far. Fifthly—and crucially—they must ensure that no consideration other than the child's welfare should be taken into account and that financial considerations should certainly not be involved.

I want briefly to draw the House's attention to two clauses in the Bill. The first is clause 11. If intercountry adoption is not carried out by an adoption agency, there is a requirement of 12 months residency before the adoption can take place. The clause reduces that period to six months, when adoption agencies are involved. I have made some inquiries about that matter, because the House needs to ensure that the reduction from 12 to six months is satisfactory. The evidence that I have received shows that six months is sufficient to ensure both that due care and attention is given and that there is no undue delay in the process, so that the adoption can go ahead as swiftly as possible.

Clause 14 toughens the law on action against those who do not follow the regulations, so that, if a person is habitually resident in the UK and brings into this country a child who is habitually resident in another state, that person has committed a criminal offence. The time period for summary proceedings to be brought will be six months from the time that sufficient evidence comes to the attention of the prosecutor—not six months from the time that the alleged offence took place. That is most important; it is not enough to dodge for six months—the relevant time will be six months from the time when the evidence comes to light. We must emphasise that it is wrong to act outside the scope of the law. Whatever the motivation of would-be adoptive parents, those who do wrong should be penalised. That is an important aspect of the Bill.

I want to make two final points. All of us, even hon. Members, become extremely emotional about the welfare of children—especially deprived children. Many of us are aware that our constituents regularly donate money, toys and clothes and respond to appeals—especially the recent appeals of the international aid agencies. We try to do what we can to use our resources to support children in need.

During my research for today's debate, I came across a letter published in The Guardian in July 1994 from a woman who had adopted a child from a Romanian orphanage. Her letter evokes the understandable emotion thai we all feel when faced with such cases, stating: Those of us who adopted from Romania cry with rage at the attitude of the British adoption professionals, and of the British and Romanian governments, towards inter-country adoption. We've only rescued a handful of children. We can never, ever, forget the children we left behind, and the conditions in which we left them. Please can't some of them be adopted into families? Please? That is a heartfelt plea, but the needs of the child are paramount, and children in desperate situations are in special need of our protection. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre mentioned the UN convention on the rights of the child, article 21 of which states that intercountry adoption should be considered only If the child cannot … in any suitable manner be cared for in the child's country of origin". Emotion is not enough.

Although we are all moved by pictures of destitute, deprived and poverty-stricken children, we must recognise that, ultimately, the real answer to their predicament lies not in intercountry adoption, but in the sort of action that my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for International Development are taking to ensure that the poorest countries of the world obtain debt relief and are given the sort of aid and financial support that they need to develop sustainable economic programmes. That action is designed to make sure that children in the poorest countries have proper standards of education and health care and that they are supported in the pursuit of jobs. That has to be our ultimate goal, but in the small number of cases in which intercountry adoption is the right and best course of action, the Bill will help to ensure proper control and regulation. In that spirit, I offer my full support for the Bill.

11.22 am
Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on having chosen such an important Bill to promote and eschewing the attractions of choosing a more high-profile, but doomed, subject simply for the publicity. He has grasped the tough and tender aspects of intercountry adoption: where such adoptions are appropriate, the Bill makes the process smoother, but where they are inappropriate—indeed, criminal—the Bill strengthens the sanctions.

The few hon. Members here will know that I am not entirely wedded to the concept of consensus, so, in a small digression on a partisan note, I should like to say that the hon. Gentleman has also done the House a service by beating the appalling Gerry Malone, not once, but twice in this Parliament. In the class of 1997, he distinguishes himself by having made two maiden speeches during his parliamentary career. I should be grateful if he would pass on the secret of turning a majority of two into one of 20,000—not that I need an increase of such magnitude, but I would appreciate a small part of it.

It is important to see the Bill in the wider context of adoption and to take into account the sensitive issues of caring and emotion that surround it. It is a truism that all societies will be judged by the way in which they treat their children, but they will be further judged by the way in which they treat their less well-off, most deprived children and those who live in horrendous circumstances, such as a war zone.

There is much that we can do, both in our home adoption system and in intercountry adoption, which should be seen as an important element within our home adoption system. Intercountry adoption is not an adjunct, a process with a different set of criteria, or an alternative route for those who fail to secure adoptions of home children, but a part—albeit a unique part—of our wider home adoption system. It is important that the Bill does not introduce peculiar criteria for judging those eligible to adopt, simply because of the nature of the societies from which the children may come.

I have no professional experience of adoption. I am not and have never been a social worker, so I bow to the expertise of those hon. Members on both sides of the House who have been. Unlike some, I do not decry or demonise social workers, because I believe that they do a useful and extremely important job for society. I have some personal experience of adoption, in that my older brother, who sadly died some 20 years ago, was adopted; I never thought of him as anything but my brother. However, with the indulgence of the House, I shall dwell on my father's experience; it may not, at first glance, appear relevant, but it does relate to intercountry adoption and the treatment of children. Given the tale I shall tell, let me express the hope that the treatment of children has moved on since my father's time.

My father was born in 1933 in north-west Donegal. There was nowhere more conservative than rural Ireland in the 1930s, and in Donegal one reached the nether reaches of that conservatism. He was born of an illicit relationship between an 18-year-old woman and someone from the north of the county—I say "someone" because I do not know the identity of my paternal grandfather, although I am still looking. Given the circumstances, the child welfare system that prevailed at that time in that place immediately whisked my father to the county orphanage in Stranorlar and packed his mother off to England, where she was to live with relatives and never again darken any door in Donegal.

In some senses, my father was in a similar position to those children who might become the grateful recipients of a home via the provisions of the Bill, because he languished in the orphanage for three years. However,

he was lucky: I do not know the details—I am still investigating—but a family called MacFadden from north Donegal took him in and subsequently raised him as their own child. Although they were not kin to my father, I have always regarded the MacFaddens as my blood relatives and I continue to visit them regularly. My father's escape from the orphanage was via an informal route—he was never adopted. He then followed the classic Irish pattern of coming over to England aged 14 or 15 and building his life securely here.

That is the general background, but what my father lost because of that background is important in terms of the human aspects of the Bill. I have looked long and hard for the jigsaw pieces that will give me some sense of my family background in Donegal. My father never knew his mother and when I tried to follow her trail, I found myself bereft of clues and avenues to explore. Every time I got close, walls were put up—those sensitive issues of caring and emotion that I referred to earlier came into play, albeit to negative effect.

I finally put the jigsaw pieces together only five years ago when I discovered not only the identity of my grandmother—who had sadly died—but a range of relatives from Britain, Ireland and America unknown to me or my father. Most dramatically, I had the pleasure of introducing my father to his half-sister after 50 years. Following my father's experiences in an orphanage and of semi-adoption, I was able to complete the circle by uncovering at least some of his background. I still have some way to go, but that thumbnail sketch of child welfare in the past demonstrates that we must treat adoptions, both domestically and between countries, sensitively.

We must not be complacent about Britain's domestic adoption system. Although it remains second to none, some aspects of it cause concern—particularly the bureaucracy, level of detail and the time that the adoption process takes. The Bill's strength is that it seeks to graft the convention's legal framework on to the intercountry adoption process. We must strike a balance between delay and rigour in national and intercountry adoptions. We cannot sacrifice rigour for emotion.

As other hon. Members have said, of the 400 intercountry adoptions that take place every year, 300 take the legal route and 100 do not go through approved channels. We must seek to redress that balance in some way. The hon. Member for Winchester would be the first to say that the Bill does not provide all the answers: it does not make everything tickety-boo in the area of intercountry adoption. However, it is a move in the right direction. There will always be a steady stream of intercountry adoptions, and it is a pity that interest in such adoptions is heightened only when Ceausescu's Romania collapses or the plight of street children in Brazil is highlighted.

I shall demonstrate that I am not partisan by quoting a Tory: the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley). In introducing the previous Government's White Paper, she said: Adoption is about creating a loving and stable family upbringing which best provides for the child. The basic framework for adopting children remains sound. I agree with that. She continued: 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. The right hon. Lady was referring principally to the domestic adoption system, but the same rules should apply to intercountry adoptions. There must be a level playing field and good practice in all adoptions. That is why I welcome the Bill so warmly. It does not introduce secondary criteria or a secondary route for intercountry adoptions, although many people would like to see that. The right hon. Lady continued: 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 should fall in line with domestic arrangements. She went on: They must prevent abuse. We must aim for the same high level of protection and benefits for the child as in domestic adoptions. One could add—it is implicit in the right hon. Lady's remarks—that "suitable" should mean taking full cognisance of the cultural, ethnic and social concerns of the child. As with domestic adoptions, the interests of the child must remain paramount. Intercountry adoption should take place if, and only if, it is in the interests of the child to leave his or her social, ethnic and historical background.

This is a controversial issue—not least because of the various elements associated with poverty and war. Hon. Members will have read the excellent brief prepared by the Library, which highlights some real concerns. I feared that my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins) was going to nick part of my speech regarding the case of Edita Keranovic, a four-year-old from Bosnia. That important case highlights some of the difficulties involved with intercountry adoptions. Edita was adopted by a family in the United Kingdom. According to press reports, in February 1997, a High Court judge ruled that the child should remain with the British family against the claims of her grandfather who emerged at some stage after the adoption. He had apparently been separated from her father by the Serbs. The grandfather never saw the father again, and his body was never found.

Mr. Oaten

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. There is a particular problem involving children who are adopted from a war zone and whose relatives emerge later. The protocol in those circumstances is that adoptions should not take place until at least two years after the war is finished in an attempt to avoid the sort of problem to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Relatives of children may be dispersed in such circumstances, and we see examples of that in Kosovo at present.

Mr. McNulty

I am grateful for that intervention, and I endorse the hon. Gentleman's comments. I raised the case to highlight not only that point but another issue.

Mr. John Healey (Wentworth)

There has been turmoil in the Balkans for much longer than two years, so perhaps the two-year deadline is insufficient. It is difficult to see how a permanent adoption and settlement can follow an adoption from an emergency situation.

Mr. McNulty

We must explore that area more fully in Committee. Many—if not all—hon. Members have said that the real strength of the Bill lies in the fact that it seeks to graft an already rigorous domestic system on to the intercountry adoption process. Secondary or alternative criteria should not apply to intercountry adoptions, but I am not sure whether we should apply explicit and distinct criteria to adoptions from zones of conflict in addition to criteria from the assorted conventions.

Mr. Oaten

I must clarify the point that I made about the period of time after which adoptions can take place in emergency situations. The critical factor is that the two-year rule applies after the conflict has ended. It does not matter how long that conflict has continued.

Mr. McNulty

It may be difficult to establish just when the conflict in the Balkans has concluded. That might be a further item for discussion in Committee.

I raise the case of Edita Keranovic in response to a letter from Catherine Stevens of the Romanian Orphanage Fund. She wrote: The case of Edita Keranovic … has once again focused attention on international adoption which, at best, offers a solution for a very small number of children and, at worst, makes large numbers of others vulnerable to exploitation. Agencies such as the Romanian Orphanage Trust are working to promote long-term, in-country solutions to childcare problems in Central and Eastern Europe. We have had considerable success in Romania where we have got over 3,000 children out of orphanages and back into family life, entirely within the framework of Romanian law. Eighty per cent. of these children have returned to their original or extended family. Where this is not possible, there are plenty of Romanian families willing to adopt. That relates to the stark point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East and demonstrates that the emotional argument that children who are not offered intercountry adoption will be left to languish in orphanages—we have seen the state of Ceausescu's orphanages—is not true. International bodies such as the Romanian Orphanage Trust and internal agencies in Romania and other countries first seek in-country solutions. That is appropriate and their efforts should be supported.

Catherine Stevens went on to say: Solutions can be found which prioritise the right and the best interests of children. These rights, and those of their families, should be safeguarded. International adoption"— as the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) said— should never be the first recourse. Even in a period of heightened conflict, when we see awful pictures of maltreatment and abuse of children in war zones, people should not go out to Romania, Kosovo, or wherever the conflict is taking place, take their pick of children and bring them back, assuming that they are doing the best for those children. The Bill reinforces that point.

The research paper says: The British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering … in its leaflet on intercountry adoption, tries to discourage stereotypes of intercountry adoption by pointing out that images of Romanian 'orphans' or South American street children, or reports of child-trafficking rings and 'baby-farms' are only part of a much larger jigsaw of the intercountry adoption picture. That is equally true.

It is important to emphasise that the European Children's Trust fully supports the Bill, and says that there are four good reasons for doing so. First, as we have all agreed, the trust says that the Bill will improve the adoption process. It states: Social services departments will now need to improve their processes, speeding up adoptions and enabling more children to have a real home, giving them the best start in life. I take on board the points made by my hon. Friends that improving the adoption process is desirable, but not at the expense of proper, rigorous, detailed checks and the accumulation of evidence.

Despite what I have said, child smuggling does go on, and putting an end to that is the trust's second reason for supporting the Bill. It says: Standardising the intercountry adoption procedure in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child … will put an end to these exploitative rings as well as unethical agencies interested only in profit and not children's welfare. That may be too much to hope for, but it is none the less an important point.

The trust's third reason for supporting the Bill is that it will give more children a real chance of real home. The trust says: Ratifying the 1993 Hague Convention will enable people from the UK to adopt from abroad with less red tape. However, the adoption process will be subject to just as much rigour as at present. The fourth reason to support the Bill is that it will give more children greater protection, by making it a criminal offence to arrange for an adoption without meeting strict requirements. As I have said before, the Bill takes a tough but tender approach to streamline the process but strengthen the criminalisation of procedures that fail to meet the necessary requirements, which are so important.

The trust believes—I like these little phrases—that Children have a future, the orphanages do not"— "should not" would be more aspirational but more accurate. The trust believes also that family based care is better than institutional care for most children. All my colleagues who are ex-social workers would agree, even though the final consequence of that policy would be to put some of them out of a job. By definition, family care must be better than institutional care. Finally, the trust states: Responsibility for the welfare of children should be taken by national bodies using local resources. I warmly welcome the Bill as a step in the right direction. I am thankful that the hon. Member for Winchester did not offer it as the panacea for all that is wrong.

In the 1930s, my father was very lucky that the MacFadden family took him out of the county home and that he did not live in an orphanage until his adolescence. He was, however, dreadfully unlucky in that his real family remained unknown to him for more than 50 years, and that he was never to meet, know or hug his own mother. We must get to a stage where children's futures, in national and international adoptions, are not left to a lottery such as the one that my father had to endure.

Systems and structures must be efficient and afford children the best life chances, ideally within the loving context of their own society and culture, but, where it is in the child's interest, through intercountry adoption. Children must come first but, as the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton said, intercountry adoption should still be the exception rather than the rule. Although it is the exception, it must be subject to a cogent, fair and effective legal framework, something that the Bill will begin to provide. As and when our home system is modified and improved in the ways that I and other hon. Members have suggested, I hope that we will put in place mechanisms equally to modify and improve the intercountry aspects of the adoption system.

Beyond that, I warmly welcome the Bill. Once more, I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester. I shall end by saying that the sooner that we move away from the war zone or poverty zone baby market for aspiring parents towards a legal framework that is fair to such parents and offers sensitivity and care to all children, the better. I commend the Bill to the House.

11.46 am
Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

I warmly welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate and, as other hon. Members have done, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on having the courage to take on this issue. I am disappointed that I was not here at the beginning of his speech, but I had a constituency appointment early this morning. I do not know whether he mentioned how he came to present the Bill to the House, but he brings it here with the good wishes of his constituents, who were given a say in his choice of Bill.

We should warmly welcome the fact that, for the second day running, the House has been at one on legislation that will benefit people. Yesterday, there was all-party support for the Disability Rights Commission Bill, which was given an unopposed Second Reading. Today, it is nice to witness the House coming together to debate useful legislation and enable it to make swift progress. I congratulate Conservative Front-Bench Members on the warm way in which they have supported the Bill.

In the late 1980s and the 1990s, I had the opportunity to spend a great deal of time working in orphanages and asylums across eastern Europe. I was in six or seven countries during their emergence from their old Communist regimes. In the countries in which I did work—Romania, Albania, Hungary and Moldova—there was obviously a great deal wrong with the way in which children had been looked after.

I remember the undue haste with which people from all over Europe and outside the continent flocked, particularly to Romania, and latterly to Albania and Moldova, in the hope of finding a perfect child to adopt. In the main, most of them were looking for perfect children. I worked mainly in asylums, dealing with some of the most traumatic abuses of the old Communist regime, so I worked predominately with adults, both men and women, but I also spent a lot of time working in orphanages. I well remember the glee expressed by the controllers of those establishments when visitors arrived with their agents. Some of those agents, I am sad to say, were from Britain and others from Ireland but, in the main, they were from countries such as Romania.

If the children were old enough to walk, they would be paraded in front of the visitors but, if they were babies, the visitors would walk around the cots and look at the children. It was as if they were buying a dog for a child at Christmas. The process was pathetic and obscene, and it was obvious that action should be taken to stop it. Sadly, there were so many other priorities in a very difficult time for those countries that it was difficult for people in the countries involved to get to grips with what was going on.

Having now spoken to some of the politicians who came to the fore then, I know that many openly deny that they knew what was going on. That is a bizarre because the one certain thing is that, from no matter where in the political spectrum they came from, the people in power in eastern Europe knew what was going on. If they did not, they knew someone who did, who would certainly have told them. There is no excuse, except that the countries were in turmoil.

Soon after that, I became the leader of Hampshire county council. Our social services department was enlightened in encouraging help to eastern Europe but took a firm line on intercountry adoptions, being mindful of the problems that often accompany them. Sadly, there is abundant evidence that children who were adopted into this country ending up in local authority care because the novelty value wore off quickly. Such bitter experiences make me proud that Hampshire social services took a hard line on intercountry adoption.

I have first-hand experience of working in an orphanage in the middle of Transylvania. One little girl was adopted twice, once to France and once to Spain. While I was working there, she twice returned, once after six months and once after nine months. Can we imagine what that was like for her? She was picked because she was beautiful and stuck out in a crowd. She always had an appealing, beguiling smile that people liked, but she had had a horrendous life and was scarred by many bad circumstances, and that made her a difficult child to deal with in a home environment. The families probably had good intentions and thought that they were doing her a favour. In fact, they were doing themselves the bigger favour. They soon found that it was a mistake, and the girl ended up back in the same circumstances twice. Many others had serious problems.

The Bill is not perfect. Legislation will never be perfect until we realise the need for universal co-operation. We must closely examine the competence of the countries where the children originate. We must ensure that they have the facilities competently to deal with such children and the process of adoption, which is never easy. It is not easy in this country, and it is not easy when more than one country is involved.

There are many examples of the problems. I am privileged to be a member of the Council of Europe, where I serve on a committee that deals with children's issues. Like the United Nations, it takes human rights and the rights of the child seriously. The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) is the chairman of the Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee of the Council of Europe. He has done much work to target intercountry adoption and achieve recognition of the need for complete, rather than partial, competence on the part of people who handle children. A child's life is a precious commodity, which we must cherish and handle carefully. I am delighted that the Council of Europe is bringing much pressure to be bear on countries, particularly in eastern Europe, and now elsewhere, that have been lax in dealing with the issue. I am delighted that United Kingdom social service departments have taken a tight line on intercountry adoption.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I have listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman. Could a child with a background such as that which he described in respect of the girl who was adopted twice ever be suitable for intercountry adoption? If so, would not the qualities that prospective parents would have to show be different from those required for a home adoption?

Mr. Hancock

I could not agree more. Few of the children with whom I worked were suitable for adoption out of their country. Many of their problems were peculiar to that country. Gypsy children of two, three and four had already had a flavour of life in their ethnic group but, for one reason or another, usually the economic decline of their family, were in orphanages. Many were not orphans in the true sense of the word. That is the other sad thing. There was a misleading belief that eastern Europe was full of orphanages with orphans as we understand the word—being without parents—but many were economic orphans. They were put in orphanages because families could no longer cope. It took time for people to acclimatise to the fact they were not dealing with children without family ties. Little or no effort was made to track down families.

I saw children leave homes because money had changed hands. It was horrendous. In the Transylvanian mountains, outside Brasov on the road to Sinaia, there were a couple of notorious homes. They were the first stopping point for anyone seeking a child. Once again. they were very selective. People sometimes took damaged children who needed more care and love than they were prepared to give. People who came to ease their consciences by offering a child a home made a big mistake. Children and families suffered. Siblings of those children in the United Kingdom and elsewhere suffered because the proper preparatory work was not done in either place.

The Bill will start to tighten or relax, as appropriate, the rules and regulations. It is to be welcomed, but we have to do more. The hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) rightly highlighted the work of Romanian Orphanages Trust and other organisations working in countries such as Albania, even in the present difficult circumstances there. I was there last year, and I went there in the early 1990s, just after fall of the Hoxha regime, when I saw the size of the problem. They are making great efforts to accommodate children with loving, caring families, mainly from their own ethnic background, in their own country.

Bosnia and Croatia are good examples of countries where strong and successful efforts have been made to get to grips with what, in most circumstances, would be considered a real stain on the persona of a country—the fact that they had ignored, and in some instances responded grossly irresponsibly to, the needs of such children.

Things are starting to improve. I hope that the Bill will be a beacon of light to other nations in Europe and elsewhere, and persuade them to bring in similar legislation. We should take a universal approach. On a planet inhabited by 6 billion people, there are fewer than 60,000 elected Members of Parliament, but legislation like this, mirrored throughout the world, would be a beacon of light and hope for children in those difficult circumstances. It would clearly establish that the human rights of children are important, fundamental and to be protected. To use children as playful pawns, as one would a pet dog or cat at Christmas, is an obscenity, in any nation. I am delighted to say that the United Kingdom, as a result of this legislation, with Government support, will make a major step forward in the right direction and set a shining example to the rest of Europe and, I hope, the rest of the world.

11.59 am
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on his success in the ballot, on choosing this topic, and on his sensitive, careful and detailed speech.

The Bill's Second Reading debate is extremely timely, not only because of the 10th anniversary of the United Nations convention, but because of the conflict in the Balkans, which will inevitably encourage more people in western Europe, especially the United Kingdom, to take an interest in intercountry adoption as a genuine humanitarian response to the many thousands of individual personal tragedies that have resulted. It is absolutely right that the Bill is before us today, because it sets out a new regulatory framework, enables us to ratify the Hague convention and introduces many administrative procedures that will make things much better.

I am sceptical about much of the motivation for intercountry adoption. I endorse the comments of hon. Members—especially my hon. Friends the Members for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins) and for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey)—who have said that the real solution to the issue of children left without parents in countries that are struggling economically in eastern Europe and elsewhere is not to refine the process and encourage an increasing number of intercountry adoptions, but to establish social justice, universal health care and sustainable economic development in those countries.

Many hon. Members have spoken with great depth and conviction from wide professional experience—and, in some cases, from personal experience—but I had not thought deeply about the issue until recently. I especially want to contribute to the debate on behalf of two families in my constituency who brought their specific circumstances to my attention. I want to highlight the two issues that they brought to my attention, and invite the hon. Member for Winchester and the Minister to comment on them in their response to the debate.

Other hon. Members have mentioned the links between countries that may or may not have ratified the Hague convention, and that are certainly not in a condition of civil war, but from which there is a considerable community in the United Kingdom. I think of India, Pakistan, Cyprus and Turkey. I want to flag up the issue of adoption procedures that apply where families who are

resident in the United Kingdom, but who have relatives in other countries wish to adopt a distant relative or a close friend of a distant relative. I want to show the existing administrative difficulties that get in their way, by highlighting the case of a constituent.

The constituent, whom I shall not name, who originally came from a different country, has been settled in the UK for many years. About seven years ago, he discovered and adopted a friend of a relative of the family—at the time, a young boy—who had lost his mother in tragic circumstances, was rejected by his father, found himself without anyone to care for him in his country of origin and was transported to the United Kingdom in ways that we need not go into.

For more than seven years, my constituent and his wife cared for that young man. They were the only people in the world who took responsibility for him, and obviously a profound bond developed between the informally adoptive parents and the young boy. The point came at which the question of official adoption arose. My constituents started to make the necessary applications for adoption, and found themselves bogged down in a quagmire of contradictory regulations. For much of the past seven years, and all of the past three years, they have been involved in endless communication with various Government Departments.

The case was taken up by my predecessor as Member of Parliament for Bury, North, who did his best to resolve it. The source of the problem was that the advice that he was given by the then Government was that it was not possible to resolve the adoption application until the entry clearance procedures had been approved. My constituents and the young man found themselves in a cleft stick. For seven years, they have lived under the potential threat of the person whom they love most in the world being deported, and with constant emotional pressure on their lives. I am delighted to say that, after representations from me, my hon. Friend the Minister has finally agreed that in this case, entry clearance should be given because of the obvious humanitarian reasons for it.

The case highlights the tip of the iceberg. Members of settled communities in Britain who, for the most genuine reasons, wish to adopt relatives or friends of relatives in their country of origin get bogged down in an appalling administrative nightmare. There is a Catch-22 situation. They cannot go through the adoption procedure until entry clearance has been sorted out, and entry clearance will not be considered until the adoption application has been resolved. I should be grateful if the hon. Member for Winchester would comment on that in his response to the debate.

The second case that I shall describe raises an entirely different point. As has been said, the Bill deals with one aspect of the raft of issues dealt with, or in some cases not dealt with, by the Adoption Act 1976. To their credit, the previous Government set in train a review of that Act and published a Green Paper, or possibly a White Paper, on the matter. Did the hon. Member for Winchester consider other aspects of the 1976 Act that are in need of reform?

One of the most worrying aspects of adoption for many people is the inequality of access to information about adopted relatives. I have a constituent whose life has been dominated by that. Again, I shall not name the individual, for reasons of confidentiality.

The sister of my constituent was adopted in 1954–45 years ago. For the whole of that time—for most of my constituent's life—she has been preoccupied with the fate of her adopted sister. She knows that she is alive, because the present system allows her to find that out, but she has no right of access to information about her. In many countries—the United States, New Zealand, Australia and the Scandinavian countries—there is equality of access to information for adopted relatives and birth relatives.

Did the hon. Member for Winchester consider that as another necessary reform of the 1976 Act? Will my hon. Friend the Minister comment on the matter? I raised it through a parliamentary question some weeks ago, in February, and I subsequently wrote to my hon. Friend about it. The initial response that I received was that the Government are not considering any further review of the 1976 Act. I wrote back to the Minister making a special plea because of the profound anguish that the issue causes so many birth relatives, and because there seems to be no argument against introducing such equality of access to information.

Although fewer and fewer children are up for adoption these days, we should remember that, in the immediate post-war period, many hundreds of thousands of children were adopted. We can be thankful that social conditions and social attitudes have changed, so that the number of children adopted shortly after birth has dramatically reduced.

Nevertheless, the lives of many thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of individuals across the country have been dominated by the anguish of wondering what happened to their natural brothers or sisters, whom they may never have seen for the whole of their lives after they were adopted. I should be grateful if those points were picked up in the winding-up speech.

This important Bill will help us to ratify the Hague convention and will produce a sensible regulatory framework. It makes the necessary administrative improvements and deserves all-party support. There are on today's Order Paper other Bills deserving of all-party support, including my Bill—the Recycled Content of Newsprint Bill—and the Health Care and Energy Efficiency Bill. This Bill certainly deserves such support and I wish it speedy progress through the House.

12.11 pm
Mr. John Healey (Wentworth)

I hesitate to speak because so many of my hon. Friends—and, indeed, colleagues on the other side of the House—have such distinguished and direct experience of the issues we are debating. Therefore I begin by declaring that I am not, and have never been, a social worker—at least, not until I became a Member of Parliament.

I declare my interest in, and support for, this important Bill and warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) first, on his fortune in the ballot and, in particular, on his judgment in selecting such an issue. By picking up the Bill and promoting it in the House, he is shedding light on a little-noticed legislative gap and on many of the policy issues arising from it, some of which have been raised today.

I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on promoting the Bill in a way that commands cross-party support. Before I was elected to the House, I had the good fortune to draft two private Member's Bills, both of which became law. The first—the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986—was promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke), who then represented Monklands, West, and cross-party backing was crucial in forcing it through the House. The second—the Hearing Aid Council (Amendment) Act 1989—was promoted by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones).

I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman—and the Government, too—on the Government backing that he has for the Bill. It is probably the most essential component, given the vagaries of the private Member's Bill process.

Clearly, the Bill meets the need for new legislation to update adoption law, which is an example of social legislation lagging significantly behind social change. Since the passing of the last major piece of adoption legislation—the Adoption Act 1976—the number of adoptions has halved. Fewer babies and toddlers are being adopted, and a greater proportion of adoptions are of older children. More people are interested in adopting children from abroad and half of all adoptions, in contrast to 20 or 25 years ago, arise from remarriage.

In addition, the number of children available for domestic adoption has dropped and the number of people wishing to adopt has maintained its rate, so there has been a steady growth in intercountry adoptions in recent years. Considering the number of intercountry adoptions and the number of adoptions in this country of children from abroad, which the Department of Health estimates to be about 300 each year through the established channels, those who drafted the 1965 Hague convention simply could not have dreamed of such a level of international interest and cross-border adoption.

The hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn)—I am sorry that he is not in his place—suggested that the increase in intercountry adoption began after the second world war, but it has taken place in only the past 20 or 25 years, not the past 50.

While I am on the subject, I should make it clear that it was not only my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) who objected to some of the hon. Gentleman's comments. All Labour Members present disagree with the idea that children adopted from another country could be adopted by parents who were not judged good enough or suitable to adopt children in this country.

Mr. Duncan

He did not say that.

Mr. Healey

I concede that the hon. Member for Guildford was somewhat confused and repetitious, but if he and the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) study Hansard on Monday morning, they will see that he did say that.

The increase in the number of intercountry adoptions in the past two decades has left us with no proper legal framework for dealing with them. We have no legislation to allow the UK to ratify the successor Hague convention that was thrashed out in 1993 and we have no criminal offence procedures to discourage adoption outside the proper, established channels. It is estimated that some 100 children a year—my hon. Friend the Minister may be able to confirm that figure—are brought into the UK and adopted without approval and without following the official adoption procedures. The Bill would be a useful measure to try to tackle the three shortcomings of the current legislative position.

If we look back over the past three decades, it is clear that the UK has played a leading role in international policy and conventions on the issue. The 1989 UN convention on the rights of the child, which covered adoption for children who could not live with their birth parents, was the product of discussions and negotiations in which the UK Government and UK non-governmental organisations played a leading part, as they did in 1993 with the Hague convention on protection of children and co-operation in respect of intercountry adoption. By March this year, 25 countries had ratified the Hague convention, six had acceded to it, which is a form of ratification, and a further 35 had signed up to it, including our Government. The Bill would put Britain back into the leading pack of countries in tackling the problem.

The admirable briefing prepared by the Library as background to the Bill contains the 1993 Hague convention and lists the signatories to it; Brazil in May 1993, Burkina Faso in April 1994, Canada in April 1994, Colombia in September 1993, Costa Rica in May 1993, Ecuador in May 1994, Finland in April 1994, Israel in November 1993, Mexico in May 1993, the Netherlands in December 1993, Romania in May 1993, the UK in January 1994, the USA in March 1994 and Uruguay in September 1993. That makes 14 countries that have signed the convention, but 66 are supposed to have ratified, signed or acceded to the convention. Therefore, 52 are unaccounted for and I would be grateful for any information that the hon. Member for Winchester or my hon. Friend the Minister could provide to help to fill the gap.

The list of countries that have signed or ratified the convention shows the scope of this international legislation. It shows the reach of the legal net that we are trying to cast across the procedures for intercountry adoptions. The number and names of those contracting countries are crucial to our understanding of how well the system that the Bill signs us up to can operate.

I envisage this system developing significantly under the provisions of the Hague convention. Each country is required by the convention to establish a central authority and accredited bodies to carry out the duties specified in the convention. Those duties are to collect, preserve and exchange information about the situation of the child and the prospective adoptive parents; to facilitate, follow and expedite proceedings with a view to obtaining the adoption; to promote the development of adoption, counselling and post-adoption services in their own states; and to provide each other with general evaluation reports about the experiences they have had with intercountry adoptions.

Contracting countries have, therefore, a duty to enforce the system in their own state, to co-operate with other states to make the system work across country boundaries, and to exchange detailed information to make it work. When we put those duties together, we begin to see the evolution of a system in which similar standards are set across different countries, and in which best practice is exchanged, information is swapped, and relationships and confidences are established between states and between authorities carrying out these duties. I believe that that

will lead to a bedding down and spreading of international values that are embodied in the United Nations convention on the rights of the child and in the Hague convention.

As Martin Luther King said, morality cannot be legislated for, but behaviour can be regulated. By setting standards of behaviour and good practice, we can influence social values and help to establish moral values that guide us on what is and what is not acceptable.

Let us hope that the Bill is this country's step towards stamping out the practice in which children are carted from country to country in an international bazaar of children. The demand in developed, affluent, stable countries is met by supply from unstable, poverty-stricken states. The testimony that we heard from the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) bore that out vividly.

Some freelance agencies are driven by the parental demand to adopt a child irrespective of the source. They are responsible for the trafficking of children, such as occurred when the Ceausescu regime in Romania collapsed in 1990. The European Children's Trust has evidence of child smuggling. A ring was established in the 1990s. Mothers from Romania, Albania, Yugoslavia and other countries were brought to Budapest for the birth of their children, who were sold by that cartel mainly to parents in the United States. Difficulties arose over the national identities of children who were born in Hungary, but whose mothers hailed from neighbouring countries.

I want the Bill to provide legal confirmation that this country condemns, and wishes to constrain, such trade, and will impose criminal penalties. It is essential to bear in mind the potential impact on children of adoptions that are illegal, or result from informal or irregular procedures. That is underlined by the European Children's Trust, which has considerable experience in this regard, and which argues: The child's right to identity can disappear if information of its origins (ethnic origin, medical history, knowledge of its birth parents) is lost, as often happens in illegal adoption. The trust reminds us that Children brought into a country illegally can find themselves in a limbo: where they have lost their original nationality but failed to gain a new one—and so are stateless. It also reminds us that children who are ill or have other difficulties may, having been transported for adoption. be rejected and committed to institutions in a new country with which they have no former connection.

As today's speeches have proved, this is an emotive subject. We are talking about children whose circumstances may be desperate and tragic, and about potential adoptive parents who may have a genuine humanitarian desire to find a home for those children or who may be driven by a desperate longing to look after a child, perhaps because they cannot bear one themselves. All who are involved in the debate, both in the House and outside, have a responsibility not to overstate the arguments—and especially not to over-simplify the complex issues involved, relating to the welfare of children, the suitability of parents and the moral judgments that must be made.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I have been absent from the Chamber checking my words with Hansard. In the light of the hon Gentleman's statement that we should not over-simplify the remarks of others, will he withdraw the remarks that he made about me in my absence?

Mr. Healey

No, I will let them stand. I commented on remarks that the hon. Gentleman made. I shall certainly study them in Hansard on Monday as, doubtless, will he, but the import was clear: that there might be circumstances in which children could be adopted from outside this country by people who were not considered suitable or adequate adoptive parents in this country. If the hon. Gentleman sits down and studies Hansard with me next week, he may well find that his remarks—confused though they may have been at the time, and perhaps corrected subsequently during his visit to the Hansard office—

Mr. St. Aubyn

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for an hon. Member to traduce another by deliberately misinterpreting his statements, and making allusions to his actions that are totally unfounded?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Of course it is not in order, but that is a matter for debate, not a matter for the Chair—and I have not heard anyone traduce anyone this morning.

Mr. Healey

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Let me return to the briefings prepared by the European Children's Trust, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) helpfully drew our attention. I feel that, even if we allow for the fact that outside organisations must sometimes simplify their briefings for the benefit of Members of Parliament, one or two of the trust's arguments have been boiled down to the extent that they are close to being misleading. I am thinking in particular of the four "good reasons" for supporting the Bill referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East.

Reason one is to improve the adoption process". That is straightforward and simply put. Reason four is to give more children greater protection". Again, that is slightly simplified, but fairly straightforward. However, reason three for supporting the Bill, the trust suggests, is to give more children a real chance of a real home". It says: Ratifying the 1993 Hague Convention will enable people from the UK to adopt from abroad with less red tape. We are all against red tape. As I understand it, the Bill will avoid a duplicate system of adoption orders. It will also mean that the immigration clearance process will not be separate from the adoption process—a problem that was faced by a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor). However, that must be balanced with sufficient safeguards, standards within the process and clear guidelines. Calling that red tape, standards or guidelines is a matter of choice, but I would not want anyone to have the impression that the Bill sweeps away the detail of a system, some of which is essential.

According to the trust, the fourth good reason to support the Bill is to stop child smuggling rings". The trust maintains that the Bill will put an end to these exploitative rings as well as unethical agencies interested only in profit and not children's welfare. My reading of the Bill is that it will make it more difficult for such operations to continue. It will introduce criminal sanctions and discourage people from using such informal channels. It will set up a system that is clearer for prospective adoptive parents to follow. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) painted a vivid picture of the position. Last night, she logged on to the internet and found more than 100 private agencies offering lists of children for adoption. The Bill may go some way towards helping to clamp down on those activities, certainly in this country and in those states that sign the Hague convention, but it cannot be said that it will end those exploitative rings; to say that is misleading.

The Bill will bring intercountry adoption into the mainstream of our domestic adoption procedures. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton put it well when he said that intracountry and intercountry adoptions are two arms of the same system. The Bill underlines and puts into practice that precise point.

The Bill's aim should be to set standards and safeguards to ensure that proper rights and protection are afforded children, from whatever country they come, in adoption. I am wary that the Bill should not encourage greater intercountry adoption, a point that was put a couple of times, I think, by the hon. Member for Winchester.

Mr. Oaten

The point that I was trying to make was that, in the initial contact between a couple who may want to adopt children from another country and social services departments. the response from those departments should be positive and encouraging. They should enter into dialogue about the matter, rather than give a negative response.

Mr. Healey

I am grateful for that clarification. I entirely agree with that comment. Anyone who wishes in good faith to become an adoptive parent should be met with a positive and supportive response. The system should be fair as well as rigorous. If the overall impact of the Bill, and the aspiration of the hon. Gentleman, is to promote a greater flow of intercountry adoptions, I will be wary, but I take his clarification to mean something different, so I am grateful.

The balance is well struck. It is clearly put in the Hague convention, which is reprinted as schedule 1. The convention's preamble—it could not be clearer or more prominent —states: each State should take, as a matter of priority, appropriate measures to enable the child to remain in the care of his or her family of origin". It goes on to say that intercountry adoption may offer the advantage of a permanent family to a child for whom a suitable family cannot be found in his or her State of origin". In other words, intercountry adoption should be very much the option of last resort.

I should like to flag up for the hon. Member for Winchester, and perhaps for my hon. Friend the Minister, three issues that clearly will be part and parcel of the regulation that will flow from the Bill and that will be an important part of implementing the Bill's measures. The first is on the nature of the central authority and accredited bodies.

Article 6 of the Hague convention spells out the fact that states should designate central authorities. Article 9 states that central authorities in each state shall perform various duties either directly or through public authorities or other bodies duly accredited in their State". Under the provisions of either the Bill or the convention, will it be possible for that central authority or those accredited bodies to be non-governmental organisations, or must they be public, state agencies?

Paragraph 2 of article 6 makes it quite clear that England, Wales, Scotland and, potentially, Northern Ireland may have their own central authority for overseeing the intercountry adoption system. However, as I interpret the article, the United Kingdom will be required to designate one authority as the central authority. I should like to have confirmation from the Minister of which body will be the United Kingdom central authority, and particularly to know whether the Department of Health, in Whitehall, will play that role.

Mr. Duncan

The hon. Gentleman is clearly straying into matters that—I think in most people's view—are best suited to consideration in Committee. This has been an excellent debate, in which we have established that there are no differences between the two sides of the House on the Bill's main principles. Will the hon. Gentleman not now see fit to allow the debate to move on—or does he wish not only to delay this Bill, but to destroy proper debate on the next one?

Mr. Healey

I have no desire to delay this Bill. I wish only to address some of the important issues that the House should consider, and think that this debate is the appropriate time to do that—particularly as markers laid down in debates on Second Reading are often picked up in Committee.

The second issue is on accredited bodies, which article 11 clearly states shall pursue only non-profit objectives according to such conditions and within such limits as may be established by the competent authorities of the State of accreditation". I simply seek assurance that the phrase within such limits as may be established will not become, and cannot become, a loophole through which a profit element may be introduced into operation of the agencies and bodies involved in the system.

Thirdly, as I said, the Bill contains strong encouragement, and a duty, to exchange information between authorities and states to underpin operation of the intercountry adoption system. I simply wish to encourage the hon. Member for Winchester to pursue that point, and to encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to agree that the more use we make of electronic media, the greater will be the acceleration of information exchange, the development of relations and the swapping of good practice. I should like the fullest possible use of electronic media in the communication between states and authorities of the information that is required to be communicated under article 13: the designation of the authorities, the extent of their functions and the names and addresses of accredited bodies.

This is a classic private Member's Bill. It is practical and non-partisan, as the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton has just reminded me. Above all, I am glad to say, it has Government backing. I repeat my congratulations to the hon. Member for Winchester and confirm my support for his aspirations.

12.41 pm
Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. I often feel that the computer that is used for the ballot for private Members' Bills and for questions has a deep-seated bias against Members from Harrow, West. 1 congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on his good fortune.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Man Haselhurst)

Order. The ballot for private Members' Bills is conducted by me. There is no computer involved.

Mr. Thomas

I am grateful for that clarification.

The hon. Member for Winchester has done the House a service by the way in which he introduced the Bill, the all-party support that he has drawn together and the effective way in which he has liaised with the Department of Health. He has given Parliament the opportunity to support a small, but vital, child protection measure.

My only query about what the hon. Gentleman has said lies in his highlighting of the frustration of several couples to whom he had spoken about their dealings with social work professionals. I do not know the cases to which he referred and I would be the last to support bad practice—it is right that we should champion high standards—but I hope that he agrees with the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), who made it clear in his helpful comments that adoption issues were complex. They are not easy for any of the professionals involved. I hope that he is wary of supporting those, particularly some elements in the media, who seek to traduce the social care profession at every turn. I am sure that that was not his intention, but we need to be cautious.

The Bill offers protection to the relatively small number of children who are adopted from overseas. I understand that there are 400 such adoptions on average every year. Of those, 300 are through the approved channels, but, sadly, 100 are not. A Bill to update adoption legislation is clearly overdue. The current key legislation is the Adoption Act 1976 and the Adoption (Scotland) Act 1978, which were passed more than 20 years ago.

The number of people adopting from overseas is increasing. The Bill has certainly not been the victim of a lack of consultation. The parents of the Bill, for want of a better term, are the 1993 United Nations Hague convention on intercountry adoption—which was underpinned by the 1989 United Nations convention on the rights of the child—and the discussion papers published by the previous Government between 1990 and 1992 on intercountry adoption and wider international issues. That led to the comprehensive consultation document and Bill introduced in 1996 by the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley). She did not have a particularly distinguished record at the Department of Health, but she deserves credit for introducing that consultation document and Bill. Sadly, the Bill did not complete its passage through the House because of time constraints, but it received wide support from professionals in the field and from the judiciary.

As other hon. Members have highlighted, one important—albeit secondary—dimension of the Bill is that it allows Parliament to fulfil an international obligation by giving effect to the 1993 Hague convention. Several other countries have been much quicker off the mark in passing the convention into law and, as Britain was a key player in drafting the convention, it is important that we take the opportunity to incorporate it in our law.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins) and others have correctly highlighted the appalling television images of war orphans in Bosnia that we all remember—indeed, we now see pictures of war orphans in Kosovo. There were appalling news stories from orphanages and care homes in Romania when the Ceausescu regime was coming to an end. Such stories bring out the humanitarian instinct in all of us: when we hear of, or see, a child abandoned or relinquished by his or her birth parents for whatever reason, or whose birth parents have died, the natural feeling of all of us is that we want to help that child to find a family. However, my hon. Friend pointed out that we should be cautious about such natural instincts, and that the solution to the problems of poverty and war lies in the work being done by my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for International Development. They are trying to secure long-term debt relief and sustainable development and long-term increases in the capacity and infrastructure of the health and social care systems in countries affected by those problems.

The 1989 United Nations convention on the rights of the child recognises the importance of family life for children. That convention and the 1993 Hague convention on intercountry adoption recognise that such adoption may offer the advantage of a permanent family to a child when a suitable family cannot be found in the child's state of origin. It must be right that intercountry adoption is the last resort, but it must also be right to allow a child the right to be adopted by a family living overseas, if that is the only realistic alternative to a childhood spent in institutional care.

We must first ensure, however, that a child cannot be appropriately adopted in his or her own country. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) did the House a service when he highlighted the letter from Catherine Stevens of the Romanian Orphanage Fund in response to the case of Edita Keranovic. Catherine Stevens points out the considerable success of the Romanian Orphanage Trust in removing more than 3,000 children from orphanages and returning them to family life. That was done wholly within the framework of domestic Romanian law; indeed, 80 per cent. of those children returned to their original family or to their extended family.

Adoption in any case, and especially adoption by an overseas family, often requires considerable adjustment, on the part of both the child and the adoptive family. We must ensure that the adoptive family is itself capable of adapting, and that it can help the adopted child to adapt effectively to a new life away from his or her own country, from family and friends and from familiar settings. Perhaps that child will have to use a different language and adapt to a different culture in a completely new environment. In that respect, the Bill is clearly welcome.

There are many examples of highly dedicated and altruistic people with the most noble motives who offer the opportunity of a new life and family to children—who are perhaps the victims of appalling tragedies.

As other hon. Members have rightly said, there have been well-publicised cases in which adoptions of children from overseas have been contested further down the line. It is right that every avenue for adoption by the existing extended family, or by another family from the same state of origin, should be explored and exhausted before intercountry adoption is accepted; the case of Edita Keranovic sounds a warning note in that respect. It is entirely sensible that new rules for intercountry adoption that protect both the rights of the child and the position of the adopting family are now introduced to regulate that process.

It is not surprising that there can be friction between those who have to investigate a family for suitability to adopt and the couple themselves. The hon. Member for Winchester was right to say that the Bill would help to ensure that clear minimum standards for that process were set throughout the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey) highlighted the figures from the House of Commons Library research paper on the number of countries that have signed, ratified and acceded to the convention. I echo the question that he asked of the Minister and the hon. Member for Winchester: what action is being taken to persuade other signatories of the 1993 convention, and countries that might accede to it, to speed up their endorsement?

My understanding of the current procedure for intercountry adoption is that approval of adopters' suitability is undertaken by the local authority social services department, or some other approved adoption agency, and that a successful application is then forwarded to the Department of Health for certification, so that it can be passed on to the relevant authority in the child's state of origin. Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Winchester and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey), have spoken of the variety of practices and standards throughout the country, and of the Bill's importance in helping to clarify some of those standards. The duty that the Bill would impose on local authorities to include intercountry adoption within their adoption services is clearly sensible and a key clarification.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport did the House a great service in raising the issue of child trafficking and the enormous number of agencies that offer help with adoption and try to make money from doing so. The new criminal offence of non-compliance with regulations resulting from the Bill is clearly welcome, as it will help to ensure that the practice of statutory and non-statutory agencies is in line with the legislation.

The key to convincing people inside and outside the House who may have doubts about the Bill lies in the comments of Felicity Collier, of the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering. She says: We warmly welcome this… Bill, which. if it became law, would provide much needed protection for children adopted from overseas. It is a matter of urgency that the UK ratify the Hague Convention… which it signed in 1994. This will enable us to work towards a position where all intercountry adoptions are made through government approved agencies and children are only adopted by families from outside their country of origin when it is clear that they cannot be placed with a family in their own country. The hon. Member for Winchester has done the House a service in the way in which he introduced his Bill and made the case for it. I warmly welcome the Bill and wish it a smooth passage through Committee.

12.54 pm
Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

In the course of the debate, two conventions appear to have emerged. The first, with which I happily associate myself, is warmly to congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on his success in the private Members' ballot. I should say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that ballot was conducted excellently, expeditiously and to the highest standards of the House.

The second convention—new to me—is the necessity of hon. Members apologising for not being social workers. I hold no brief for social workers: the majority of them are excellent, hard-working and perhaps underpaid people. I suspect that some of them read The Guardian, but the less said about them, the better. However, one consistent feature of the profession is that social workers are always blamed if they act, and blamed if they do not act. Importantly, the Bill strikes precisely the right balance between what was described as "red tape" and standards and regulations.

We have heard some excellent contributions this morning. I congratulate particularly the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) on an extraordinarily wide-ranging and detailed speech, which was refreshed by his personal experiences. On a similar note, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) once again bestowed on the House the benefit of his wide-ranging life experiences. I understand that the Donegal Democrat—the newspaper from his homeland—features a regular round-up of speeches by my hon. Friend, who has developed a reputation for sweetness, lightness of touch, gentleness and generosity of spirit. I am sure that his speeches will continue to be read with approval by subscribers to the Donegal Democrat.

However, I must counsel hon. Members against researching their family trees. I offer the good example of the Rev. Sydney Smith who, when asked whether he had an idea of his family origins, replied, "Grandfather disappeared at the time of the Assizes; we asked no questions." In my case, one of my grandparents—who is mentioned in hushed tones in the family—was identified as, sadly, having once been the Conservative mayor of Bognor Regis. His name is never spoken.

On the substance of the Bill, it may be said that a Bill of this importance that legislates for such a small number of people—possibly only 300 per annum—is not the best use of parliamentary time. I think it is the very best use of parliamentary time. It is in the best traditions of the House that right hon. and hon. Members should concentrate so much time and effort on not only resolving an anomaly, but adding to the sum total of human happiness. It is all the better that we are concentrating our minds and efforts on a measure that applies to only a small number of people.

In discussing legislation, one describes not only what it is, but what it is not. A theme that has run consistently through today's debate is the utter abhorrence of the

system of "pick a blue-eyed baby" or tourist adoption. The Bill has nothing to do with that and, to its credit, supports the alternatives.

The excellent briefing from the Library contains one of those chilling expressions that one must re-read to ensure that one has understood it. It refers to "sender" nations. The tradition arose in some countries—typically Korea—of addressing child poverty and deprivation by exporting those problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) pointed out correctly that the problem of unwanted children would be solved only when the social infrastructures of such countries addressed those issues. Exporting children, and becoming known and defined as a "sender" country, is no way of addressing that problem or of even beginning to meet the needs of individual children. I repeat my praise of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South and his comments on that subject.

This matter is not about choosing babies as the latest designer accessory or even about responding—perhaps understandably—to the intensely high emotion of a particular world crisis, be it Guatemalan street children or Kosovan refugees. It is about recognising that, in today's world, where communications systems are so widespread and so much faster and where family structures are changing and people are moving across the planet, anomalies will always occur. There will always be a need to adopt children who are not, but who are as close as, blood relatives. I can think of an Iranian family in my constituency who sought to adopt a child who had been brought up as part of their household, but was not a blood relative. When all the child's relatives died or disappeared and he was left alone in the world, it was utterly natural for him to turn to the family whom he knew best.

We cannot legislate for all the circumstances that will arise in a constantly shifting and changing world, but the hon. Member for Winchester has made an excellent job of producing a Bill that provides the basis for a far better, saner and more sensible way of operating.

We are dealing with individuals. We have heard that intercountry and intracountry adoptions may not be successful, but that is because of the nature of the individuals. To realise that, one has only to consider cases of famous people such as the Fashanu brothers. They came from the same background and were adopted and brought up in similar circumstances. One ended a tragic, lonely life with death at his own hand in a garage in the east end of London; the other is successful. At the end of the day, it is the individuals who count. The hon. Member for Winchester has recognised the importance of the family and of the individual.

I pay particular credit to the hon. Gentleman for clauses 3 to 8, which are important because they will amend the British Nationality Act 1981 to enable children adopted overseas under the convention to receive British citizenship automatically under certain conditions. As my colleagues have eloquently pointed out, the problem of dealing with entry clearance has often made impossible the logical pursuit of an adoption through what an hon. Member earlier described as the quagmire of the process. The problems attendant on adopting children and then having to deal with their nationality often put unacceptable strains on the family relationship and the children. I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester on correctly identifying the need to amend the British Nationality Act so that those children can eventually receive British citizenship.

Felicity Collier, the director of the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, has been quoted extensively, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas). The Library briefing contains a statement also from Gill Haworth, the chief executive of the overseas adoption helpline. One sentence in that statement should be shared with the House. Referring to prospective adopters who want a more regulated system, she says: They also want to know that the child who will eventually become a full member of their family truly needs them as parents—having been abandoned or fully relinquished for adoption. They do not wish to risk that they and the child have come together for life as a result of child trafficking or other irregularities which may, in time, threaten their security as a family. The Bill is small and non-contentious, but it covers a vast range of human activity.

Mr. McNulty

I thank my hon. Friend for his earlier, perhaps scurrilous, description of me. Does he agree that the only discordant note that has been sounded today is the notion that there should be a two-tier aspect to the home adoption and intercountry adoption systems? One of the Bill's strengths is that it eschews that notion and states that the same model and framework should be used for adoption at home as for intercountry adoption. That discordant note should be dismissed.

Mr. Pound

I entirely concur with my hon. Friend, although I did not hear that discordant note. The assumption, even the suggestion, that there might be a duality or double standard is contemptible and unworthy of the House. I regret that such a statement was made, if it was—I cannot confirm that fact.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I am sure that I speak for all Conservative Members in agreeing with the hon. Gentleman. None of us heard a discordant note. It must have sounded in the imagination of the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty).

Mr. Pound

I did not hear it because I was not in the Chamber when the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) spoke.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East, let me say that northern countries should not affect superiority by adopting—le mot juste—a different standard in respect of Guatemalan street children. For us in the west to feel that we are doing so extraordinary a favour that the ordinary standards of decency that apply to fostering and adoption in our country should not apply is unacceptable. No hon. Member would make such an assertion. Anyone with half an ounce of wit or sense would regard that attitude as indefensible. It is even a pre-imperialist attitude.

I remarked on the breadth of the Bill. Its introduction of sanctions to deal with unacceptable practices in intercountry adoptions must not be underestimated. We all know of dramatic cases, some of which were mentioned today. The introduction of sanctions and a proper legal framework and the fact that we can move towards global ratification of the 1993 Hague convention are all measures that, when united, will be of great service to children and adopting families, but not to the criminal and semi-criminal gangs of thugs who leech off human misery and squeeze profit from it. They will not thank the hon. Member for Winchester for introducing the Bill, but any decent-minded person will. I am happy to associate myself with it.

The Bill has the support of both sides of the House. That not only does credit to the skills of the hon. Member for Winchester and those who drew it up, but is a recognition of the fact that children have rights. Until recently, children were perceived as the property or chattels of parents. The fact that they now have rights through the United Nations structure and under legislation is so ground breaking that we sometimes need to be reminded of it. Ultimately, the Bill is not so much about adoptive parents or the country from which the child comes as about the child. What we do here today will materially improve the conditions not only of children seeking adoption now, but of those who seek it in future.

I am told that many hon. Members pass their time in the House without achieving great things. I do not know whether that is true because hon. Members achieve things in different ways. In advancing the Bill, the hon. Member for Winchester may not change the course of the nation's history, but he will change the lives of many children and adoptive parents, and that is admirable. I congratulate him on that and hope that the Bill will receive the full support that it deserves.

1.9 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on doing well enough in the ballot to introduce the Bill. Having heard my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) and for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) comment on the process of balloting for private Members' Bills, I say only that my number has yet to come up.

I welcome the Bill. We should remember that not many children will be affected. Every year, about 300 children come to the United Kingdom legally for adoption, and it is estimated that about 100 are brought here illegally. The Bill is primarily aimed at the latter, although I very much welcome the fact that the 1993 Hague convention is to be introduced into our law, better to regulate the legitimate process for intercountry adoption.

The Bill introduces a proper legal framework for intercountry adoption. It enables the UK to give effect to the Hague convention and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North graphically described, introduces sanctions to tackle unacceptable practices in intercountry adoption. I shall discuss that later.

Last night, I got home in time to catch the end of the Chelsea match—about which the less said, the better—but, immediately afterwards, there was the 10 o'clock news on the BBC. As has so often been the case in recent weeks, the lead story was about the crisis in Kosovo. I cannot be the only one who saw the report of the boy, a refugee from Kosovo aged about 13 or 14, who graphically told of his experience. He told how, when the Serb troops arrived, he had been playing at a friend's home. He managed to get out and hid in a dustbin overnight, emerging next morning to find the village deserted. His family had been forced to leave without him. Somehow, he made his way to Albania, where the Albanian authorities accommodated him in a sports centre, with many other destitute children.

That was a tragic story, and it is not the only tragic story to come out of this war for children, for disunited families and for the many others who have suffered at the hands of the Serbian authorities.

In such circumstances, there is often a great ground swell of feeling that we must do something for those children. This morning, on Radio 4, I heard debates about how many refugees should be accepted into the United Kingdom. The next stage is that families start to wonder what they might do personally to help, and it is a natural reaction to wonder whether one might adopt one of those children. That is not necessarily the right reaction.

Last night, when I was preparing for the debate, I saw in the Library brief a quotation from a leaflet published by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering. Its counsel in that leaflet is very important, and bears relaying to the House. It said: There are various circumstances which may lead people to consider adopting children from overseas and some typical examples have been given already. I gave a graphic example earlier. There are also other situations, for example, war or famine or poverty, which may lead people to believe that adopting children affected by disasters will be the right solution but this may not always be the case. It then speaks of war and emergencies such as that in Kosovo, which we now see on our TV screens, read about in newspapers and hear about on the radio.

Mr. McNulty

Does my hon. Friend agree that the essence of the Bill is not to attack or impugn the motives of those who want to adopt a child from overseas but only, as other hon. Members have said, to put the interests and needs of the child first and foremost? As the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) said, intercountry adoption should be the exception, not the rule; but the Bill will smooth the path for those who do want to adopt.

Mr. Dismore

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. I hope to develop some of the themes that he outlined later, if there is time. The key point that my hon. Friend makes is the primacy of the interests of the child and the feelings of the prospective adoptive family. Throughout our legislation relating to the protection of children, and in our family law, the children's interests always come first.

I am sure that my hon. Friend shares my experience when dealing with cases involving children in the surgery. We meet the parent whose child has been taken away, or the grandparents seeking access to the child who has been placed in temporary care or with a foster family. Not unnaturally, they sometimes think that their feelings come before those of the child. It may be difficult for us in our surgeries to represent the interests of the child when discussing the position with the parents, grandparents or the rest of the family.

The point that I was developing when my hon. Friend made his helpful intervention was that, in the United Kingdom, there are many well-meaning people who want to do all that they can to help the refugees whom they see nightly on their television screens. Not only do people make donations, but now there is a debate on the extent to which we should take refugees—

Ms Coffey

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the tragedies of the situation in Kosovo, which has touched

all of us, is the parents desperately seeking their children and distressed children who have lost their parents, whom we see so often on television? Is not one of the most important contributions that we can make to ensure that aid agencies are given the resources to enable parents who are seeking children to find them, and to put children in touch with their parents, re-uniting families? If we do not make that effort in the immediate future, two or three years down the line, children who are not orphans, but who have been lost, will be designated orphans. The greatest contribution that we can make is to re-unite those children with their families.

Mr. Dismore

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention, which is the mirror image of the story of the young boy whom I described. Somewhere, in one of the refugee camps in Albania or Macedonia—or perhaps the family has moved out of the region to one of the countries that are taking refugees—there will be a distraught family, terrified of what has happened to that child. His relatives will not know that he hid in a dustbin overnight. For all they know, he was murdered by the Serbs. I only hope that, somehow, they may have been able to see the television pictures that we all saw last night. Perhaps that may help to re-unite that family.

One of the worst things that the Serbs have been doing is not just the ethnic cleansing —

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It was perfectly in order to make an illustrative point, but not to develop it.

Mr. Dismore

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I return to the main focus of my remarks—the comments of the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering in the Library briefing on the Bill. BAAF state that in situations such as war or famine, families may be desperate to ensure their child's survival and will even consider placing a child with another family permanently. It refers to the large movements of children during the Vietnam war and more recently in Bosnia, and the same is now true of Kosovo. BAAF continues: One of the biggest problems with emergency situations is that there is rarely any systematic approach to placing children. They may be moved between countries, sometimes in an extremely haphazard way, with very little record-keeping or documentation about where they came from or where they are eventually placed. That is illustrated by the present situation. One of the things that the Serbs have been doing to all refugees is stripping them of their documentation. They have been doing so to make it that much harder for the refugees to prove that they had homes in Kosovo and citizenship there. A by-product of the Serbs' actions is that that will make it that much harder for the families of refugees to be re-united or to—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman heard what I said.

Mr. Dismore

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Bill deals with the need for proper documentation.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas

My hon. Friend is right to mention the need for proper documentation. Is he aware that a number of lawyers have been using privately commissioned home-study assessments to get round the current legal position? Does he agree that one of the Bill's positive aspects is that it will close that loophole and lock in local authority social services departments, or other agencies approved by the Secretary of State, as the only route for legitimate intercountry adoptions?

Mr. Dismore

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The Hague convention specifically refers to the need for proper documentation when children are put forward for intercountry adoption and for proper written consent from the parents. It also refers to the need, if the children are old enough, for proper consent to be given by them in writing.

Before you brought me to order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I was trying to make the point that the absence of documentation to prove identity and rebuild links in the terrible situations that give rise to circumstances in which people wish to enter into intercountry adoptions is yet another handicap for those who want to deal with those problems and initiate an adoption, if that is legitimate.

The BAAF goes on to record the efforts of the Red Cross to set up proper recording systems, which have been developed from experience in previous wars, and refers to the serious long-term consequences of moving people about. In that context, it specifically says that it is sometimes impossible to gather the information needed to decide whether a child is available for adoption. For example, and to follow up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey), are the child's parents alive? If so, would they agree to the plan? Are there any birth relatives who could care for the child?

For those reasons, intercountry adoption is not a suitable way to deal with the needs of children who are moved about as a result of war. I was trying to develop that point— perhaps a little too extensively—in the context of the Bill when you called me to order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A child's parents have to be traced, if they possibly can be and if they are alive, to give their consent to the adoption. However, it is likely that they would want the child to be returned to them.

Ms Coffey

Does my hon. Friend agree that an important aspect of the implementation of the Hague convention in countries of origin is ensuring that their procedures establish that the child is adoptable? Far too often, we hear stories of children being snatched and offered up for adoption. They are not adoptable, but have been taken from their parents because they are considered to be a marketable commodity. Having the Hague convention ratified in countries of origin is as important as receiving countries such as the United Kingdom implementing it so that the procedures for adopting children—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady has already spoken once in the debate and cannot make a second speech. Only brief interventions are allowed.

Mr. Dismore

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We have to look at not only the receiving country—that is what we are debating in respect of our role in the Hague convention and the Bill—but the position in the country of origin. The valid question of the Yugoslav citizenship of the children involved in the Kosovo crisis, and what attitude the Belgrade Government would take towards them, has been mentioned. There is no easy answer to that question.

The position could be reversed, as children from the United Kingdom may be wanted for adoption by people from overseas, and the Library briefing refers to the example of overseas service men. An American service man serving on one of the air force bases in East Anglia may marry a local woman with children from a previous marriage and want to adopt them before moving overseas.

Valerie Davey

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as a result of the Hague convention and the Bill, we have introduced a new phrase—a convention adoption? A convention adoption will allow a greater understanding of reciprocal terms and conditions in all countries. My hon. Friend is right to say that it will allow adoption from this country to another country in certain circumstances, under the same rigorous terms and conditions. The great advantage of the convention and the Bill will be that the position will be clarified. The debate that we are having will take place around the world and, as a result, all those countries who ratify the convention will have a greater understanding of the details of the issue.

Mr. Dismore

My hon. Friend makes a telling point about the need to see the Bill in the context of what is happening worldwide. The Library research paper lists those countries that have already signed up to the convention, including Brazil in May 1993, Burkina Faso in April 1994, Canada in April 1994, Colombia in September 1993, Costa Rica in May 1993, Ecuador in May 1994, Finland in April 1994, Israel in November 1993, Mexico in May 1993—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was here for the whole of the debate, but I am hearing something that I have heard before and it is unnecessary repetition.

Mr. Dismore

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was here for the start of the debate and heard the hon. Member for Winchester introduce the Bill. I was also here for some of the earlier speeches by my hon. Friends, but I did not hear the full debate.

My hon. Friends the Members for Stockport and for Ealing, North mentioned the need for criminal sanctions. In my other profession as a personal injury lawyer, I was often accused of ambulance chasing. I found that an unjustified allegation because I tried to conduct myself in a proper and professional way. However, there are bad eggs in that profession, as in any other, and my hon. Friends highlighted the problem of bad eggs who are involved in adoption. Many of the agencies are legitimate, worthwhile and understanding bodies which do the job properly. However, there are many sites on the Internet that are effectively businesses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport mentioned. We must look to protect children and not see them simply as a commodity for international trade.

1.27 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Hutton)

This has been a high-quality debate and we have heard some impressive and well-informed contributions from both sides of the House. I draw significant comfort from the fact that, when the House debates issues of child welfare—am grateful to the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) for giving us the opportunity to do so today—we see strong cross-party support for the welfare of children. I hope that it will always be the case, in the House and in the country, that we can all unite in pursuing that agenda. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer rightly said, when he introduced the Budget in March, children account for only 20 per cent. of our population but they are 100 per cent. of our future. That is true and applies just as much to children who come to this country from overseas and are adopted by British citizens as it does to any other child in this country. It is important that the House can unite around a common agenda to promote the long-term welfare and best interests of children.

Several significant speeches have been made and many detailed and technical questions have been raised by hon. Members. I wish to respond as fully as I can to all those questions, because it would be discourteous not to do so. The hon. Member for Winchester was right to emphasise that the Bill does not create new obstacles to intercountry adoption. It provides better protection for children in those circumstances, and it establishes a clear and effective legal foundation for intercountry adoptions. It allows the United Kingdom fully to meet its international obligations, and in so doing to co-operate in international child protection and child welfare measures. It is important that this country takes that leading responsibility.

I am particularly grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about officials in the Department of Health. Some of them are present, but I shall ensure that all the officials who have supported the hon. Gentleman are aware of his kind words. I shall return in more detail to some of the points that he raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), who unfortunately is not in his place, made a good speech, and he raised a number of technical issues, some of which were taken up by other hon. Members, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) and the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock).

Most of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe related to the welfare of children subject to intercountry adoptions. He also referred to cases involving a country of origin that is not a signatory to the convention, and he asked about the differences between the adoption order procedures in a convention country and those in a non-convention country. He also raised the issue of the former Yugoslavia and the wider issue of what happens when a country is at war or when civil hostilities or other extreme civil emergencies are taking place. He asked what steps should this country and other convention countries take to ensure that, when those special circumstances prevail in the country of origin, the strictest standards for intercountry adoptions are applied.

My hon. Friend asked what provisions in the Bill and the convention would fundamentally guarantee the welfare of children. That point was also raised by other hon. Members. I draw the House's attention to article 4 of the convention. Under the convention, a child's country should ensure that the child cannot be looked after in his own country before it considers an intercountry adoption. Article 4 requires the child's country of origin to establish

that the child is adoptable, and to determine, after possibilities for placement of the child within the state of origin have been given due consideration, whether an intercountry adoption is in the child's best interests. The article identifies other steps that the country of origin is required to take. It must ensure that consents have been given freely and have not been induced by payment or compensation, and that the consent of the mother, when required, has been given only after the birth of the child, so that there is no suggestion of unfair or inappropriate pressure.

The issue of what happens in a war zone or where there are hostilities is a grey area: it is a complex area of international law. The view has been that treaties that require a state of peace are suspended at the time of hostilities or war, although there is no clear international law on that point. That does not apply to treaties such as the Geneva convention, which are designed specifically to apply in times of war.

The Vienna convention, which deals with treaties generally and lays down the international framework of law for their application, does not directly address the problem in detail. After hostilities cease, it may not be feasible, practical, appropriate or even desirable for the application of the treaty to be resumed immediately. It would depend on the terms of the treaty. The hon. Member for Winchester referred to a two-year suspension of international treaties. I am aware that some states have taken that view, but this is a difficult area, because international law is not absolutely clear. I shall say more about that shortly, but, in general, I think that such cases emphasise the need for the strictest possible standards. Several speakers, mainly Labour Members, have mentioned the issue, which has arisen in a number of contexts today. Most speakers have stressed the need for the highest standards in assessment of both the suitability of an adoption in the first place, and the suitability of the prospective adopters. That applies to intercountry as well as intracountry adoptions, including adoptions at times of civil emergency and hostilities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe referred to non-convention adoptions. The Bill makes no express mention of such adoptions, but clause 9 makes it clear that local authorities' duty to provide adoption advice and adoption services will include overseas adoptions, whether they are convention or non-convention adoptions. Section 9 of the Adoption Act 1976 gives us power to make regulations governing the way in which adoption agencies exercise their functions. We intend to make regulations governing the process relating to non-convention adoptions, which will be similar to the process relating to convention adoptions. They will require approval by local authorities of prospective adopters. Proper documentation will have to be sent to the Department of Health, which will handle intercountry aspects. There will have to be proper supervision of placements when children come to the United Kingdom, and proper reports must be made to the court in regard to adoption applications.

The Bill will make it an offence to bring a child into the United Kingdom without the prescribed requirements being met, irrespective of whether that child comes from a convention country. One of the prescribed requirements will be the approval of the Department of Health. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) referred to clause 13, and to the fact that private home study reports will be made unlawful. That, too, will apply to both convention and non-convention adoptions.

A number of speakers mentioned the situation in the former Yugoslavia—in Kosovo, and in Serbia generally. Yugoslavia is not a signatory to the Hague convention, and, because of that and because of the situation generally, any adoption would have to be subject to a full and rigorous additional procedure in the United Kingdom. Under the Bill, it will not be possible for such adoption orders to be dealt with as convention adoption orders. I hope that I have dealt adequately with some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) made an effective and well-informed speech. I pay tribute to her work in the House and elsewhere on promoting adoption, and congratulate her on the content and tone of what she said today. She made a number of points, one of which concerned adoption statistics. We intend to consider ways in which the new performance assessment framework for personal social services, on which we are consulting widely, might be adapted to cover local authority adoption services. I will ensure that my hon. Friend is informed of any developments. We share her wish to ensure that adoption becomes a mainstream element of children's services, and we shall take the appropriate action.

I welcome the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) and acknowledge his work to promote the welfare of children. He was particularly concerned about the welfare of children overseas. I agree with the general tone of his remarks. He is not here at the moment—[Horn. MEMBERS: "Yes he is."] I am sorry. I do not have my glasses on. I draw his attention as well to article 4 of the Hague convention. I hope that that addresses some of his concerns.

I appreciate the support of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan)—I am sure that the hon. Member for Winchester does, too—who spoke for the Bill on behalf of the Opposition. I echo the tribute paid by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton to hon. Members who have spoken in the debate. As I have said, it has been a high-quality debate. We appreciate the hon. Gentleman's comments.

The hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) unfortunately provoked some concern about what he intended by his remarks. I am not in a position to judge them at the moment. Obviously, he must account for them, but I hope that he agrees that, in intercountry adoption, we should not be any less rigorous, or determined to ensure the suitability of prospective adopters than in cases of adoption in this country.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I am sure that we all agree with that. However, does the Minister not agree that there is widespread concern that individual local authorities perhaps provide their own criteria above and beyond what would be normally judged as suitable? Those authorities should bear it mind, in setting criteria for couples who are able to adopt, that there may be couples out there beyond those who are required for home adoptions who may be very suitable for the particular cases referred to the debate. They should not be unnecessarily excluded.

Mr. Hutton

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman's attempt to clear up the confusion about his earlier remarks has inadvertently added to that confusion. We take seriously adoption in the UK. As I have said, we want to ensure that it is a mainstream service that is available for children who would benefit from adoption. We have already issued new statutory guidance to local authorities to ensure that that happens.

The hon. Member for Guildford specifically referred to age limits. He seemed to indicate that there was some statutory bar, or upper age limit in relation to adoption. That is not true. The legislation does not contain any statutory upper age limit for prospective adopters. The guidance that has been issued to local authorities rightly draws attention to the fact that, although there is no upper age restriction, age is one consideration among many that needs to be taken into account in assessing the suitability of prospective adopters.

Age is necessarily linked to general health, fitness and emotional well-being. Some older people may score higher in that regard than some younger ones. Therefore, under the guidance that we have issued, adoption agencies are expected to recruit adoptive parents who will have the health and vigour to meet the many and varied demands of children in their growing years and to be there for them into adulthood. I hope that, if the hon. Member for Guildford was under the impression that there was a statutory age limit, he is now reassured that there is not.

The hon. Gentleman asked what would happen if a competent court in one country did not annul an adoption and an equally competent court in another country did. We could have a problem if a court in one country, perhaps the country where the child was born, decides for some reason to rescind, or to annul the adoption order. What implications would that have in the United Kingdom?

Under the convention, proper investigation of the child's background would need to take place. Article 4 would, I hope, preclude situations arising where a child's family is not properly investigated. The circumstance that the hon. Gentleman envisaged might arise where a long-lost relative turned up after adoption has taken place; that was his concern.

We think that the procedures in the convention will make that extremely unlikely. If an adoption is made under the terms of the convention, it may be annulled on the ground of public policy—for example, under article 24, which will be implemented by clause 6.

I think that the hon. Gentleman was concerned about what would happen if the courts of two convention countries reached two different views on an adoption. Under clause 6, if an authority or another convention country annuls an adoption, we would recognise that annulment —as we should have to do under the convention. However, it would be extremely unusual for, and is extremely unlikely that, courts in two convention countries would deal with the suitability of an adoption in that way. Although I hope that a basis for his concerns will never materialise, we believe that the convention's structure, methodology and very strict requirements on assessments of suitability for adoption will make the advent of such a basis very improbable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) was certainly right to describe the Hague convention as an act of international solidarity, because it is about the safety and welfare of children. She was right also to say that the Bill will help to provide necessary clarification of the procedures that should be followed in intercountry adoptions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins) brought his own very considerable professional knowledge and insight to bear in a very impressive speech — although he started a trend for later speeches, in which other hon. Members made almost therapeutic confessions that they are or have been social workers. I do not think that any of them have anything to apologise for. Social work is an honourable and very important profession, and the Government shall certainly be taking action to improve social services and to support social workers in some of the very difficult work that they do on our behalf.

My hon. Friend stressed the need for a properly regulated process in intercountry adoptions, which is exactly what the Bill will provide. He was right also to make the point that the Bill is not about red tape—a theme that was picked up in later speeches—but about allowing the United Kingdom to implement fully the Hague convention. To echo his phrase —I cannot put it any better—the Bill is a marriage of high principle with common sense. He placed the Bill exactly in its proper context.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East spoke very movingly of his own family history, and of the circumstances in which his father and grandfather found themselves. He emphasised the strong support for the Bill—which commands universal support both inside and outside the House—and struck exactly the right balance between promoting the welfare of children and meeting the aspirations of would-be adopters.

I am very sorry that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South is not in the Chamber, but he had to deal with other commitments. In an extraordinarily effective and powerful speech, he gave us the benefit of his own considerable knowledge of intercountry adoptions, rightly pointing out not only the pitfalls, but the more positive outcomes produced by intercountry adoptions. He also rightly said that we have to be rigorous in our assessment procedures on prospective adopters. The House listened with very great interest to his remarks. I am sure, from their tone, that he will continue his efforts, perhaps in the Council of Europe, to secure advances in the welfare of children. I am glad that he so strongly supports the Bill, which he described as a shining light, in which we may all bask.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) mentioned some quite specific concerns and a specific adoption case in his own constituency. I was glad to hear that that case has now been resolved. He also raised the much wider issue of information on adoptive families, and on giving rights to relatives of those who have been adopted to identify and contact their adopted relative. Although I should be happy to meet him at any time to discuss those issues, if he thinks that that would be helpful, there are some significant risks in pursuing the path that he seemed to want us to take. It is only fair to put that on the record, but we are happy to discuss the issues with him in more detail if he would find that helpful.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey) raised several issues, including the number of children involved in intercountry adoptions. I can confirm that his figures were broadly accurate. He also emphasised the importance of international action to ensure the proper protection of the welfare of children moving across national boundaries.

My hon. Friend asked about the number of countries that have signed the convention and the number that have subsequently ratified it, pointing out what he regarded as some discrepancies in the information that had been provided. As of 5 February this year, 35 nations had signed the Hague convention and 23 had ratified it. Six others had acceded to the convention, making a total of 29 countries in a position to implement it. Accession is equivalent to ratification, but only members of the Hague conference can ratify it. Non-members take the path of acceding to the convention. The Bill will allow the United Kingdom to join the list of countries that have ratified the convention. We shall all be pleased when that happens.

My hon. Friend also asked about the central authorities required under the convention. He was right to suggest that the Department of Health in England will be the central point of contact between all four home countries and the convention, but central authorities will be created in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It is not a requirement of the 1993 Hague convention that the central authority should be a public body, but all the countries that have ratified it have appointed the relevant public body that already has responsibility for adoption. That is entirely appropriate and makes perfect sense.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West traced some of the recent history of adoption law and the background to the Bill. He rightly drew attention to the strong support for the Bill expressed by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering. We welcome that support, which is encouraging.

In a short but effective speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) was the only Member to draw attention to the aspects of the Bill that relate to the British Nationality Act 1981. He explained powerfully why amendments to that Act were necessary. He also rightly emphasised the need for the highest possible standards in intercountry adoption.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) drew attention to some of the particularly difficult situations that can arise where there are hostilities or other civil emergencies. I emphasise that the greatest care should be taken in such cases.

I hope that I have responded to all the points that have been raised during the debate. If there are any other outstanding issues to which hon. Members would like a response, I shall ensure that we follow them up with correspondence. I place on record my appreciation for the hon. Member for Winchester in his choice of Bill. He has done the House an enormous service, giving us an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to supporting the welfare and protection of children, and we are grateful to him.

The Government recognise the need for legislation. The Adoption Act 1976 and the Adoption (Scotland) Act 1978, both of which would be amended by the Bill, were prepared at a time when very few people in the United Kingdom adopted from overseas. Such adoptions were confined mainly to the adoption of relatives. Intercountry adoption has been growing steadily in recent years, providing an option for people who cannot have children or who wish to extend their existing family. Our view is that the opportunity to adopt from overseas should continue to be facilitated.

The Bill will place intercountry adoption on a firm legal footing. Its provisions largely replicate measures contained in a comprehensive adoption Bill issued as part of a consultation document in 1996 by the previous Administration; the proposals on intercountry adoption received widespread support at that time from everyone in the sector, including professionals —such as social workers—interested organisations and the judiciary.

The Bill will enable more adoptive families to adopt children from overseas and have the adoption order automatically recognised within England, Scotland and Wales, when they adopt under the 1993 Hague convention. That means that the adoptive parents will not be required to reapply to a court for a second adoption order on their return. Also, their adopted children will enjoy the same legal status as children adopted in the UK; that will include the opportunity to have their adoption registered. Equally important, the Bill closes the door firmly on those who would seek to adopt children without going through the proper process.

I shall say more about those issues in a few moments, when I have set the Bill in its wider context. Hon. Members will be aware of the Government's "Quality Protects" programme, the objective of which is to improve all services for children, including adoption, through good-quality assessment and care planning, effective audit mechanisms and stronger management. It is a three-year programme and in this, its first year, work towards achieving those improvements is already well advanced.

In that connection, the Government have invested £375 million over the three-year period to assist local authorities to develop management action plans that identify specific projects for improvement. We are working with local authorities to bring adoption into the mainstream of children's services. We are also anxious to see a marked reduction in the time children spend in temporary care before being placed with new and permanent parents. It is no longer acceptable—if it ever was—for children to be allowed to drift in the care system.

"Quality Protects" addresses that issue and also seeks to change certain attitudes towards adoption—the subject of the Bill. For too long, adoption has been regarded as an option of last resort—to be applied only when all other alternatives have been tried and have failed. Such a view demonstrates a misconception of the value of adoption and a failure to understand its advantages for children unable to live with their own families.

Adoption must be seen as a positive option for children; that important message permeates the "Quality Protects" programme. For some children, adoption provides a fresh start, perhaps giving them their only opportunity of experiencing family life. More than 850,000 children in the United Kingdom have benefited from adoption since the first adoption legislation in 1926. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to adoptive parents, through whose generosity and commitment so many children have come to enjoy the sense of security and well-being that may have been denied them in their younger lives.

The hon. Member for Winchester began his speech by reminding the House that a mark of our society is how we treat our children. I agree strongly with him. The Bill is essentially about children and measures to protect them. However, those children live not in the United Kingdom but overseas—sometimes in countries where there is great deprivation and poverty. Not only are many families in those countries vulnerable, but the children are even more vulnerable.

Many hon. Members referred to the 1989 UN convention on the rights of the child, which points out that intercountry adoption may offer the advantage of a permanent family to a child for whom a suitable family cannot be found in his or her State of origin". My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre made particular reference to that. For many, if not, children needing new families in countries working with the United Kingdom, there is no alternative to institutionalised care; adoptive families are simply not available and relatives are able to care for those children in only a small percentage of cases.

The real alternative for many abandoned children in a number of countries is a life in an institution throughout their childhood. Some children leave the institutions to live in public sewers, or on the streets, surviving by stealing or prostitution, or acting as drug couriers. The life expectancy of most of those children is estimated by UNICEF—the United Nations Children's Fund—to be about six years. Death often comes to those children as a result of a drug overdose, murder, hypothermia, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and so on. We must continue to work with our international partners to improve the situation facing those vulnerable children.

The aims of the Bill, although having to do with the adoption of children from overseas, complement the concepts behind the "Quality Protects" programme. The Bill provides two important measures to protect those children: first, by enabling the United Kingdom to give effect to the 1993 Hague convention; and, secondly, by providing sanctions against those who bring them, or arrange for them to be brought, to the UK without authority.

Because the children are to be adopted by people living in a different country, there are two sets of laws and regulations to be met: those of the child's country of origin and those of the adopter's country of residence. It was with that in mind, as well the knowledge that intercountry adoption is frequently linked to abuses against children and their families, that the Hague conference began its work on intercountry adoption in 1990. More than 80 countries, including the United Kingdom, and many non-governmental organisations took an active part in the work of the conference over a three-year period, culminating in the convention in May 1993. Hon. Members will know that, in 1991, the United Kingdom ratified the 1989 UN convention on the rights of the child, and that that convention provided the bedrock for the 1993 Hague convention.

The hon. Member for Winchester explained that the convention is a framework containing minimum standards to be applied by countries seeking to ratify it. It is not a comprehensive adoption manual, but a document upon which countries can build and so improve their own legislative measures. The United Kingdom is fortunate in that there already exists a comprehensive framework to operate the majority of the requirements set out in the articles to the convention. The Bill fills the remaining gaps and provides the opportunity for the UK to meet an important international obligation by giving effect to the convention's articles. In ratifying the convention, the Government will provide a clear signal abroad, for which the hon. Gentleman asked, that we take seriously the protection of children adopted from overseas.

The Bill amends section 1(5) of the British Nationality Act 1981; to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North referred, by providing that, where a child who does not have British nationality is adopted, either in any UK court or outside the British islands, under the convention—and only under the convention—he will be able to acquire British nationality automatically. That will be subject to at least one of the adoptive parents being a British citizen at the time the adoption order is made in the foreign court; and, in the case of a convention adoption, on the adopter—or, where they are married, both adopters —being habitually resident in the UK.

Under current law, an adoption order made in a United Kingdom court automatically confers British nationality on a child who is not a British citizen where at least one of the adopters is a British citizen. Therefore, the amendment ensures that the adopted child enjoys the same status from the making of a convention adoption order as he would if the adoption were made in the UK—a requirement placed on the Government by the convention.

In doing that, the Bill implements article 26(2) of the convention, which requires a contracting state, where an adoption has the effect of terminating a pre-existing legal parent-child relationship, to ensure that: the child shall enjoy in the receiving State, and any other Contracting State where the adoption is recognised, rights equivalent to those resulting from adoptions having this effect in each such State". Let me assure the House that that provision does not breach any fundamental principle of UK sovereignty. A court in another convention country is not being given authority to confer British nationality; rather, the United Kingdom is imposing an additional effect upon a convention adoption at the time the order is made. Therefore, it is the United Kingdom that determines British citizenship, not the foreign court.

I am pleased to inform the House that, since 1990, when interest in intercountry adoption began in earnest, the majority of people adopting children from overseas have done so through the proper channels, by approaching a local authority or an approved adoption agency. Since 1993, almost 1,200 applications have been processed by the Department of Health to adopt children from 42 different countries. Many adopters have written to Department of Health officials responsible for intercountry adoption expressing their thanks for the help and support that they have received. Although I do not pretend that the present system is perfect, in most cases, it works well within existing legislative constraints.

However, a not insignificant number of people, for a variety of reasons, choose not to proceed with an intercountry adoption through the proper channels. The precise figure is not known, but it is estimated from various sources that about 100 children living overseas

are affected in that way each year. Not only do those people avoid procedures in the United Kingdom, but many seek the help—not without cost—of individuals or organisations overseas which themselves operate outside their own laws. It is not unknown for fraudulent documents to be used to secure an adoption order in a child's country of origin; and there are often concerns about the validity of a mother's consent to the adoption of her child, or that she has received money or other forms of reward to persuade her to relinquish her child for adoption.

Many international child welfare organisations, including UNICEF, Defence of Children International and the UN special commission on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, continually voice their concerns about trafficking in children. The drafters of the 1989 UN convention on the rights of the child were highly aware of the moral and physical dangers facing children in many countries. Regrettably, trafficking is too often linked with intercountry adoption, as it is a very lucrative source of income for the unscrupulous. Operation of the convention will eliminate such practices, as will the requirement in the Bill that every person seeking to adopt a child from overseas must be assessed by an adoption agency.

I take this opportunity to assure the House that the Bill is not about frustrating the wishes of those who want to adopt children from overseas; it is about setting out clearly and for the first time the correct procedure to be followed. Continued co-operation between the relevant competent adoption authorities in both the adopter's country and that of the child will ensure that only those children who are in genuine need of a new family are placed for adoption.

As the hon. Member for Winchester has already pointed out, the objectives of the proposed sanctions include dealing with unacceptable practices in intercountry adoption in order to deter those who would otherwise make arrangements to adopt a child and who have not been approved as suitable to become adoptive parents, those who have been assessed and found unsuitable, or who have not applied because they are aware that their application is bound to fail.

I could say much more about the Bill but, in order to ensure that the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith) has an opportunity to present his Health Care and Energy Efficiency Bill, it might be helpful if I confine my remaining remarks to the timetable for enacting the measures.

Once the Bill becomes law, officials in my Department will prepare consequent regulations and guidance to local authorities, adoption agencies and other interested groups. I assure the House that we shall consult widely on the contents of those regulations. It is also envisaged that a series of training seminars will be arranged to inform adoption agency staff about the legislation and their part in making the new provisions work effectively. The Department's "Guide to Intercountry Adoption" will also be brought up to date and presented in a form that will facilitate its use by social workers as a reference book in their intercountry work. I hope that the work will be completed within a year of the Bill's enactment and that implementation will occur in summer 2000. The instrument of ratification will be delivered to the Permanent Bureau at The Hague before the end of 2000.

In conclusion, the Government strongly support the measures in the Bill. Its provisions are sound and its objectives are laudable. It will apply to England, Scotland and Wales—I am advised that Northern Ireland intends to introduce its own legislation in due course. The Bill is compatible with the European convention on human rights, and similar legislation is being considered—if not already enacted—by many of our European partners. The children whom we seek to protect through this Bill cannot plead for themselves: we must act on their behalf. Therefore, I hope that the House will give the Bill a resounding vote of confidence on Second Reading.

2.7 pm

Mr. Oaten

I do not wish to delay the House as I hope that we can proceed speedily to other business. I thank hon. Members for their comments in this morning's excellent and mature debate. I hope that they will forgive me for not responding to their points in detail, but I wish to proceed.

Their congratulations to me are not in order. First, one's place in the private Member's ballot is due completely to luck. Secondly, the Bill was not my idea—I am sure that it would have been on the legislative programme of a future Government of whatever political persuasion. It was a handout Bill. Thirdly, my constituents chose the Bill: I held a ballot in my constituency and let the people decide. Therefore, the congratulations offered to me are completely unnecessary.

This is an important Bill which will make the entire system of intercountry adoption much more professional. It should give those working in the field in social services departments comfort that they can now receive training and resources to support their work. It will comfort prospective adoptive parents to know that they will be treated speedily, efficiently and effectively. Above all, the Bill will provide children with the rights and the protections that we have spoken of so warmly this morning. I hope that the House will support the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).