§ 11.4 am
§ The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Alan Milburn)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the White Paper, "Adoption: a new approach", which I am publishing today.
Every child should have the best possible start in life. As a country with one of the largest economies in the world, we should be aiming to provide opportunities for all children, whatever their backgrounds. The Government have a special responsibility to ensure that every child in our society has the opportunity to grow up in a stable and secure family. That is why we have taken action to lift more than a million children out of poverty, to raise child benefit by record levels and to increase support to families through the working families tax credit. In all, we are spending an extra £6 billion each year in real terms on financial support for children. It is also why we have taken action to strengthen safeguards for children, with new legislation, new resources and new programmes, such as the sure start and quality protects schemes. Together, those two programmes alone will provide investment of more than £1.8 billion over the next three years in services helping some of the most vulnerable children in the country.
Ultimately, stable families and strong communities provide the foundations for a fair society. Children do best when they grow up in a stable, loving family. When children cannot live with their birth parents, we have a shared responsibility to make sure that they can enjoy the loving family life that most of us take for granted.
As every hon. Member knows, the opportunity to grow up in a stable family environment has not been properly extended to looked-after children who, for one reason or another, cannot live with their birth families. It is not only the children who have lost out; society as a whole has paid a heavy price for that failure. At any one time, local councils look after 58,000 children. Seven in 10 of them leave care at 16 without a single qualification. Almost four in 10 male prisoners under 21 have been looked after at some stage in their lives; 25 per cent. of the people sleeping rough on the streets of London have been in care. That is not a failure of the child in care; it is a failure of the system of care.
Those children, perhaps above all others, need the safety, stability and loving care of a permanent new family, and they need that stability as quickly as humanly possible. That is not the case at present. Children stay in the care system far longer than they should. More than 28,000 children have been in care continuously for more than two years. Too often, despite the best intentions of all involved, they are passed from pillar to post inside that system. Nearly one in five looked-after children have three or more placements in a single year—some have six or more. For those children, the care system does not provide the stability that they need to overcome their troubled past and build a successful future. Those children need a better chance in life. They deserve a better deal.
Adoption can provide just such a new start in life for a looked-after child. Too often, adoption has been seen as a last resort when it should have been considered as a first resort. In some councils, 10 per cent. of looked-after children are adopted; in others, less than 1 per cent. are. As adoption services are run on a local basis, children and 580 adoptive parents can miss the chance that adoption brings. Overall, the system, including the courts, can be slow, cumbersome and unfair. Of course, the safety of every child should be of paramount concern, but, on average, children are waiting almost a year and a half before it is decided that adoption is best for them. Even after a decision is taken that they can be adopted, they wait longer still. Overall, the average time taken to adopt a looked-after child is three years—an eternity in a child's eyes.
People who want to adopt children from the care system need a better deal as well. We are short of adoptive parents, but the system deters people from adopting; it is slow, intrusive and sometimes simply inappropriate. There have been cases, as all hon. Members know, of potential adopters who have been told that they cannot adopt simply because they are too old or too middle class. Such blanket bans can have only one effect—they fail to put the needs of children first. Families who adopt children overwhelmingly do a brilliant job for those children. It is not an easy job, because many of the children are not easy. They and their adoptive parents deserve more support. Adoption services and adoption laws are in need of reform. The Adoption Act 1976 is based on legislation that dates back to 1958, and is inconsistent with the Children Act 1989.
In February this year, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister launched a thorough review of adoption. He commissioned the performance and innovation unit in the Cabinet Office to consider the evidence and make recommendations for action. The report was published for consultation on 7 July this year. It found that there was clear scope for many more looked-after children to be adopted. The Prime Minister made it clear in July that the Government accepted some of its key recommendations. In particular, he announced that new legislation would be introduced next year.
The White Paper that I am publishing today outlines the most radical overhaul of adoption law and practice in 25 years. New legislation will seek to place children's safety, welfare, and interests at the heart of the adoption process. It will link adoption more closely with the principles of the Children Act 1989, and extend the options that courts have to secure a permanent family life for looked-after children. A new special guardianship order will be created for those children who want a more legally secure permanent family than can be delivered through foster care or residence orders, but who do not want to sever all legal ties with their birth family.
A clearer legal duty will be placed on local councils to plan for and provide comprehensive support services for adoptive families. Families who adopt children will be entitled to have their needs for support services properly assessed. They will have access to a comprehensive package of post-adoption support, including adoption allowances, in a way that is more consistent across the country. We are already consulting on introducing paid leave for adoptive parents, and for potential adopters whose application is rejected we will introduce a new right to an independent review.
Local councils and voluntary adoption agencies will need to make substantial improvements to their adoption services. Some are already doing so. Last year, the number of adoptions rose from 2,200 to 2,700, but much more needs to be done. New resources will be made available to produce better results. The Government will 581 provide £66 million of investment for local authorities over the next three years to help transform adoption services for children. In exchange for this investment, I will expect to see clear improvements in performance.
In future, we expect the majority of councils to do what the minority are already successfully doing: working collaboratively with other councils and voluntary adoption agencies. Council performance on adoption will be more rigorously monitored, not least through the social services inspectorate and the Audit Commission. If a council is persistently failing to deliver, I will not hesitate to use my intervention powers to transfer its adoption services to another agency.
An adoption register for England and Wales will be established. It will match children with adoptive parents across the country when a local family cannot be found or when a child needs to move away from the local area. I am today issuing invitations to tender for the new register, with a view to its becoming operational next summer.
The courts, too, will need to improve their performance. My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has been looking carefully at the causes of delays in dealing with children's cases. The White Paper sets out how we will speed up adoption cases. In the coming year, the Lord Chancellor's Department will increase the number of judges specially trained to deal with family work, and make better use of the available expertise. It will set up pilots to evaluate the benefits of concentrating adoption work in specialist adoption courts with experienced judges and court staff. It will also work with the president of the family court division on guidance to courts on better case management and take further steps to improve the way in which the courts deal with adoption cases.
Next year, too, the new children and family court advisory and support service—CAFCASS—will be set up, bringing together services for children in one comprehensive agency, allowing them better to meet the needs of children.
However, these changes in local courts and in local councils will not, by themselves, be enough to bring about the step change in adoption services that children need. Today, therefore, I am also publishing for consultation the first ever set of national adoption standards. They will help to drive up the standards of service for children and adoptive parents in all parts of the country. The standards set challenging new targets to speed up adoption processes.
Six months after being looked after continuously, every looked-after child will have an agreed plan for permanence. That might cover efforts to rehabilitate a child with their birth family, but if adoption is the plan for permanence, suitable adoptive parents should be found within a further six months That will be a major improvement on the current position and will almost halve the average time that it takes to find an adoptive family for a child. For foster carers who want to adopt a child, and if it is in the child's best interest for that to happen, we will go further still. Applications by foster carers who want to adopt a child in their care will be processed in just three months.
The standards will also set out how prospective adopters will be welcomed and treated in an open and fair way. There will be no blanket bans on people because of their age, health or other factors. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, 582 hear."] For example, it is clear that the best family for a child is one who reflect their birth heritage—we certainly need to do much more to recruit adopters from diverse ethnic backgrounds—but no child should be denied loving adoptive parents solely on the grounds that the child and the parents have different racial or cultural backgrounds. The child's interest—their safety and well-being—will be the crucial factor in determining their adoptive parents. I hope that the measures will help us to treat and support adopters better so that we can attract more people successfully to adopt more children.
It is right that we are ambitious for looked-after children and for prospective families. There is no shortage of children who are looking for a stable and loving permanent family. A 1999 report for my Department found that 2,400 children were waiting to be adopted and 1,300 adopters were waiting for children. Adoption must become a first-choice option for looked-after children who cannot return home. Therefore, the White Paper sets a new national target to deliver a minimum 40 per cent. increase in lasting adoptions by 2005, although I hope that the measures that I have outlined today will help us to achieve a 50 per cent. increase over that period. Our aim must be to give many hundreds more looked-after children the chance to live as a permanent member of a stable, secure and, above all else, loving new family.
Children get only one chance to grow up. A looked-after child should have the same life chance as any other child. They should have an opportunity to belong, to have a stake and to get on in life. For too long, too many have been denied that and have been the innocent victims of a system that has failed to meet their needs to provide a permanent and secure loving family. It is a failure that we would not tolerate for ourselves; we would certainly not tolerate it for our own children, and we should not tolerate it for other children. The reforms to adoption that I have announced will transform the life chances of hundreds, hopefully thousands, of children. They deserve no less. I commend the proposals to the House.
§ Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that statement and, for the second time in two days, for making a copy of his statement available to the Opposition in advance.
Those of us who have worked professionally with the social services and have experience of the adoption process wholeheartedly welcome the announcement. We often say that children are the most vulnerable members of our society, but looked-after children are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. Therefore, as the Secretary of State said, it is extremely important that they are given the chance to experience a stable and loving environment out of what is too often a failure of the care environment.
I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will strongly welcome many of the proposals. It would be outwith the spirit of the season if I did not congratulate the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) on his hard work. It happens in politics that the boss gets to steal the glory much of the time, but I am sure that the House will want to pay tribute to his contribution.
There is a general feeling among those involved in the adoption process that far too little importance is given to the child at the centre of the adoption, and far too much to the bureaucracy, the system and other people 583 surrounding the child. That is the central thrust of today's statement, but I should like the Secretary of State to expand on one or two of the items that he mentioned.
I welcome the concept of the national register, especially if, as I hope, I am correct in assuming that national objective criteria will set out the qualifications for being an adoptive or fostering parent, that they will be the same throughout the whole United Kingdom, and that they will form the basis of any appeal that might arise. Standardisation is one of the most important factors in encouraging parents to come forward. Currently, because standards are so varied throughout the country, people fear that they will be subject to local prejudice and other factors, so many are dissuaded from coming forward to give children the chance of a stable home. Only this week, we had brought to our attention the case of a couple who, because they had applied for IVF, were told that they were unsuitable to adopt. That is a disgrace and something that the whole House would strongly deprecate.
I welcome the concept of permanence, as set out by the Secretary of State. As he knows, during discussions on the Care Standards Bill we urged that provision be made to ensure that, after a period in care, children would automatically go forward for adoption. Today, the right hon. Gentleman has set out a constructive version of that theme, which we welcome, but will he consider making another provision for which we asked when we considered that Bill? Will he provide access to some mechanism to ensure that children maintain contact with groups outside the care environment before they start out on the process of adoption? As the right hon. Gentleman says, the adoption process is difficult and time-consuming for the children involved; if they were enabled to maintain a link with a family, a church group, a charity, or some outside influence that could give them a cultural experience broader than the one that they find in the care environment, that would be a positive step forward, which we would welcome.
I think that the Secretary of State accidentally missed out one element when he talked about the monitoring of performance. He mentioned the social services inspectorate and the Audit Commission, but am I not correct to assume that the National Care Standards Commission will be involved in monitoring adoption standards? That provision already exists in legislation, but I think that the right hon. Gentleman accidentally omitted to mention it. In addition, when he says that, if a council persistently fails to deliver, he will use his intervention powers to transfer its adoption services to a different agency, what sort of agency does he have in mind? Is he talking about the privatisation of adoption services? If so, we would not object.
I have three short and specific points. First, the Secretary of State mentioned the courts. How long does the average adoption process take in the courts? His statement was not clear about that element in delays, but it makes a difference to our approach to reform. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman did not mention the culture and training of social workers. Given that they are the ones who will have to execute any big change in the process, any improvement in that respect would be most welcome.
Thirdly, of the measures that the Secretary of State has outlined today, which will require primary legislation and which secondary legislation? If there is a point of 584 difference between us and the Government today, it is that we have to wait for legislation, given that we all agree on the need for reform and on many of the reforms themselves. The Secretary of State says that children need stability as quickly as humanly possible; well, we could provide it more quickly. The Prime Minister accepted the recommendations of his review in July and we could have implemented some of the measures in the Care Standards Act 2000. The Government have found time for legislation on other matters, but not for legislation on adoption. I ask them to think again and to get a move on.
The Secretary of State is right to say that children need action. We do not need to wait another year. We shall support the legislation if is introduced on the basis that the right hon. Gentleman has set out today, so let the Government put their legislation where their mouth is and get on with it. That is the best Christmas present that they could give to children in care.
§ Mr. Milburn
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his warm support for the measures that I have announced. I think that overwhelmingly they will command support throughout the House. I very much hope that they will.
I join the hon. Gentleman—I did not have the opportunity to do this earlier—in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister of State and other members of the ministerial team. My hon. Friend has taken a lead on the issue and has done a first-class job. It is nice to be able to get that on the record.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that in future we must do what seems to be a simple thing, but is pretty difficult to achieve. We must examine the entire adoption process through the eyes of the child rather than through the eyes of those who are administering the process. If we can do that and produce that culture change, we shall introduce major improvements in the system, particularly in making it quicker, more accessible and more appropriate.
The register will be separate from the national objective criteria that we are setting. I hope that the register will be up and running—invitations will be issued for tenders today—by about July next year. The hon. Gentleman is right about national standards. They will be enforced throughout the country, and that is the right thing to do. As a point of information for the hon. Gentleman and the House, a statutory code of practice will accompany the standards and the proposed legislation. I will be ensuring through section 7 statutory guidance that local authorities enforce the standards that we are setting at national level to ensure that children and potential adoptive parents throughout the country get a fairer deal than hitherto.
The hon. Gentleman said that children in care should be able to maintain contact with those outside the care system. That is absolutely right. As he is aware, the Children Act 1989 places a primary requirement on social services to provide such contact, especially in relation to a child's extended family. That should be the first point of contact that any child in care is given by the social services authority.
The hon. Gentleman is right about the National Care Standards Commission. It will have an important role when it comes on line in 2002, both in regulating adoption agencies and inspecting local social services departments and their adoption functions.
585 There are two possible routes for the transfer of adoption services from a local authority. The first is transfer to another local authority. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, many local authorities are voluntarily entering into consortiums arrangements with others. That provides a larger pool of children, a larger pool of parents and a larger pool of expertise. It is a good thing, and we want to see more of it. Secondly, it will be possible to transfer adoption services to a voluntary adoption agency where local authority services are failing. Many agencies do an extremely good job and we want to see their role enhanced.
At present, we do not have information about the time that is taken in the courts. We are seeking to elicit that information as an element in speeding up the court process. There are two separate delays. One is within social services departments and the second is when the case gets into a court, where further delays compound the problem for both the child and the adoptive parents. We shall be examining these matters closely.
The hon. Gentleman is right when he says that we need to make some major changes to social work culture and training. In the past few months, I have announced that an extra £41 million is going into social work training to ensure that we have more qualified social workers who are appropriately trained.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point about primary legislation. I repeat for the benefit of the House what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said and the commitment that he has given. We shall be introducing legislation next year. The hon. Gentleman asked about the private Member's Bill of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). I do not know as yet what it contains, but adoption legislation to carry forward our radical programme of reform will need a large piece of legislation—larger than would normally be possible through a private Member's Bill. Furthermore, the two measures that the hon. Lady has said will be included in her Bill—a national adoption register and consistent national eligibility criteria—do not require primary legislation. We shall be getting on with those things now.
§ Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)
As joint chair of the all-party Back-Bench group on adoption, I welcome this enormous step forward for children. I thank everyone at the Department for the hard work that has been done to produce such a good package. There are very few questions to ask—perhaps only how the commissioner for care will link into it. For those most deprived children, Father Christmas has come early.
§ Mr. Milburn
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I pay tribute to the work that she and the all-party group have done. It is always useful for Ministers to have a bit of pressure—not too much. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister of State has been feeling the heat, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) feels that the pressure that she and others have been applying has achieved the right response.
The role of the commissioner or director will be extremely important in the future, and will involve taking a broad view of how well children's services are being delivered. That is right. We are setting in place various mechanisms to make sure that we get the right balance between speeding up the adoption process and ensuring 586 that appropriate safeguards are in place. We will not compromise on quality in order to achieve the quantity targets that we have set. That is very important. We know that the best local authorities achieve both. They manage both to speed up the adoption process and to deliver a high quality service. I have a simple view on that: if one local authority can do it, every local authority can.
§ Sandra Gidley (Romsey)
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not become too bored by the fact that most of us welcome the White Paper. The only regret is that it is long overdue and no place was found for it in the Queen's Speech.
I particularly welcome the setting of national standards, which will end the heart-breaking experience of many prospective adoptive parents when they try to find a council whose criteria they fit. I also welcome the right of appeal to an independent body; the £66 million that local authorities will be given to invest in improving adoption services; and the recognition of the importance of after-care and support following adoption. However, I can find no mention of on-going funding for that process.
Social services around the country are hard-pressed for cash, so will there be an input of money from the Government to fund this worthwhile scheme? We need to make sure that adoptions last. Many of the children come from damaged backgrounds. Three years is a long time for a child to be in care before being adopted, and we must do everything possible to minimise the long-term effects of that. Can the Secretary of State confirm that funding to local authorities will be on-going throughout that process?
I have a couple more quick questions. What will the special guardianship order mean in practice? Finally, the PIU report in July showed that there was scope for a much higher proportion of looked-after children to be adopted. There was no mention of any measures proposed to attract a wider pool of potential adoptive parents. Will the Secretary of State elaborate on that?
§ Mr. Milburn
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her welcome for the proposals. The special guardianship order will be particularly important for older children who want to maintain contact with their birth families—who do not want to sever their ties with them, but want more than all the benefits that long-term fostering can offer. That order will end councils' legal responsibility for looking after the children. That will become the responsibility of the family with the special guardianship order, which will be particularly attractive to the children themselves.
Incidentally, it is worth saying that in the course of preparing the White Paper, we consulted various agencies and so on, but we also took the trouble to consult some children in care, as well as children in the adoption system and some who have been adopted. I hope that their views have informed the final product.
The White Paper has been published on time. I do not know where the hon. Lady got the idea that it had not been.
On-going support is important. We know that about 18 per cent. of adoption placements—one in five—break down. It is therefore very important that, as we increase the number of adoptions, we increase the support that families get. Adopting a child is not an easy process for the child or the family, and we should not assume that it 587 is straightforward: it is not. It requires help and, sometimes, cash, which is why I expect local authorities to spend a good proportion of the £66 million that we are providing on adoption allowances for families who do not always have great wherewithal.
As part of the on-going support, we have given local authorities three years of funding. This is the first time that they have ever had that, and the funding is part of the quality protects money. I know that we shall never satisfy Liberal Democrat Members on that point. Every time that we put money in, they always want more, but they never say where that should come from. The problem is that, in the end, I am afraid, one must take decisions about where the money is coming from. Two things are involved: the money to be spent and the money that one gets. One has to balance them both.
§ Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. I am quite emotional about it because I have the privilege of being an adoptive parent. My right hon. Friend could not exaggerate the hideousness of the procedure that so many people go through, and could not exaggerate the awful trauma that so many children experience. I stand here as a privileged mum of a 20-year old who has been, and will remain, my two eyes. I am therefore grateful for the statement.
When my right hon. Friend mentioned the independent appeals procedure, I, for one, said, "Yes!" I was 32, had gone through awful episodes—as one could well imagine—and was told by social services that I was too old to adopt. That broke my heart, and my husband's heart. The fact that we were Christians and attended church gave us the opportunity to adopt Philippa. However, that should never ever be the case. I cannot say that I am a brilliant parent, but I think that I am two thirds a good parent. I would not like to exaggerate, but many people want to take part in bringing up children, and the proposal will give them the opportunity to do that, as the appeals procedure is vital.
Perhaps this is a personal beef, but was no consideration given to having a national bureau for adoption? I know that we have national standards, and I like that. However, having been the victim of a local authority decision and having had no recourse, may I ask whether any consideration was given to establishing a national body? Lastly, may I ask the Secretary of State, as a good friend of mine, what support will be given to the birth mother who, in making her decision, goes through an awfully traumatic time, both before and after adoption? Support is therefore crucial. As a mum—a privileged, adoptive mum—and on behalf of my partner, may I thank my right hon. Friend for the statement?
§ Mr. Milburn
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for what she said and all that she has done. She is right that the current processes are horrendous. One would think that there were too many potential adoptive parents in this country and too few children in care. However, the position is quite the reverse. The way in which the system has operated has deterred adoptive parents and prevented children in care from getting the support and the loving permanent family that they need. The White Paper is important—as will be the legislation—as it will turn that situation around.
588 My hon. Friend raised two specific matters. On the creation of a bureau, we looked carefully at that in the course of our consultation, especially after the PIU report was published in July, but there were mixed views on it. The primary thing to keep in mind is the importance of maintaining the strong; linkage between local adoption services and local child protection services. That is why, in the end, we chose the model that we did. It will keep adoption services local, but at the same time, ensure that there is a national adoption register, which will provide a bigger pool of prospective parents and children and, we hope, get the match right.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about birth parents. Anybody who thinks that giving up a child is easy has got it wrong. The White Paper advocates some simple things that we can do in respect of birth parents. For example, we can change the form that birth families have to sign when they give up their child. It currently states that they give up their child freely and without regret, but such wording is not appropriate. In future, the form will make it clear that parents are signing because they believe that the adoption is in the child's best interests. I hope that that will be a small step towards making the process slightly easier.
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
As co-chairman with the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) of the all-party group on adoption, I strongly welcome the statement and congratulate the Secretary of State and the Minister of State on a series of measures that will make a material difference to some desperately disadvantaged children whom Parliament has failed for far too long. I especially welcome the moves on post-adoption alliances, as well as the introduction of the national register and the fact that it is being put out to independent tender. I welcome also the right of appeal to the Secretary of State for parents who have been turned down and the time framework that is to be imposed on local authorities.
I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that, in delivering all those measures, the voluntary organisations and local authorities will be fishing in the same limited pool of social workers. His parallel consideration of social work training and of the culture of the social services departments—an issue to which my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) referred—will be critical.
I leave the right hon. Gentleman with one more thought. Although I strongly endorse his remarks about changing the wording of the forms for birth parents who are genuinely agonising about what is best for their children, I ask him not always to be sympathetic to birth parents. He must bear in mind birth parents such as those of a little chap who was adopted recently in my constituency. They had kept him locked in a cellar for so many years that he could not speak. Another child was left outside for so long that doctors had to consider amputating his feet because of gangrene. There are some good birth parents, but also some bad ones; the balance is difficult to strike.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on a splendid package.
§ Mr. Milburn
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. As he said some very difficult balances must be struck. Anybody who thinks that there are simple solutions has got it remarkably wrong.
589 On social workers and social work training, we need two things. First, we need more staff. We are trying to tackle the current shortage of appropriately trained staff, not least by giving those who are already working in the social care world the opportunity to train in order to obtain a social work qualification. The £41 million that we have made available for the next three years specifically for that purpose will help us in achieving it. Secondly, we must ensure that the training is more appropriate. The White Paper and, previously, the PIU report, concluded that the training that is currently given and the product that we get are not appropriate. That must change. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman spoke about cultural changes. That is the correct term; some big cultural changes must be made, and they will take time to take effect.
§ Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West)
As somebody who worked in adoption some years ago, I wholeheartedly welcome the review, which is long overdue. Everybody in the profession realises that it is about time that the fundamental changes that are proposed were made.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the quality of the vetting of adoptive parents is given a thorough overhaul? That should be done not only to remove some of the false barriers that good adoptive parents face with regard to age and all the rest of it, but to prevent the devastation that can affect some children, who, having spent some years in care, believe themselves to be going into a loving home, only to find that they have entered an abusive one. That has happened most often because the social workers have not kept their eye on the ball or managed to find the signals of abuse. Nothing could be more devastating for a child. Will my right hon. Friend reassure hon. Members that he will keep that at the forefront of his mind when the adoption process is speeded up?
§ Mr. Milburn
I can certainly give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance that there will be no compromise on children's safety or children's protection. Two important points should be made. As she is aware, the Criminal Records Bureau will come on line next summer, and that will be a great help in pooling our knowledge about abuse and abusers. Voluntary adoption agencies and local authorities will be allowed direct access to that bureau, which will be helpful not only in finding information, but in finding it more quickly.
Assessment is crucial in ensuring that the child's safety and well-being are taken fully into account and that we achieve the right result for both the prospective parents and the child. As part of the White Paper proposals, we shall review how the assessment criteria are used. That review will begin next year, and will probably take some time to take effect, but I believe that the end product will be a better and more rigorous set of assessment criteria that will achieve the right result for more children and more prospective parents.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)
Does the Secretary of State agree that probably the biggest cheer that he received for his excellent statement was for the passage in which he condemned blanket bans resulting from a form of reverse racialism that holds that loving, white, potential adoptive parents should not be allowed to adopt black children? Can he throw some light on the puzzlement that hon. Members on both sides of the House 590 feel about how such attitudes ever came to be prevalent? Can he reassure us that the sort of people who held such disgraceful attitudes will not be in a position to inject more poison into the system? I conclude as I began: I congratulate him on an excellent statement.
§ Mr. Milburn
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his warm words.
We must ensure that the child's safety, well-being and interests are at the centre of everything that we do. That is what counts: end of story, bottom line. The figures are appalling. One child in five with an adoption plan is from a black or minority ethnic background. Black children wait, on average, five months longer for placement than white children. Kids themselves lose out as a result of such nonsense. It is right that local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies alike take due note of the figures and of the clear guidance that my Department has issued: first, that the heritage of a child should of course be fully taken into account in making the assessment and the placement and, secondly, that there should be no racial barriers to ensuring that a child receives the loving, supportive and permanent family that he or she needs.
Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)
I, too, am a proud parent, with my wife Rosemary, of two grown-up adopted sons, Damien and Luke, who bring great joy. It is great that adoption is possible, but it should only ever be secondary to the possibility of children remaining with their birth parents.
I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend say that a definite, permanent solution will be found after six months, which is good. However, will every effort be made in those six months to give the right support to natural, or birth, parents to establish whether there is any possibility of the children remaining with them? One often hears complaints against social services, usually relating to lack of resources, that little effort is made in that period and that matters drift. Birth parents feel aggrieved, upset and distressed that they were perhaps not given the support that they needed to find out whether they could make it. Although I agree that there comes a point—perhaps in six months—when a decision must be made, it is important that birth parents are given every opportunity.
§ Mr. Milburn
I agree. As we know from current practice, about half of all children who end up in local authority care are back with their birth families within two months. As my hon. Friend knows, under the Children Act 1989, social services departments' primary requirement is to ensure on-going contact and, if possible, re-placement with the birth family. When appropriate, that must be the right action to take. In addition, as he said, we must set a time limit that is fair for the child. Although six months might not sound long to us, it is a substantial proportion of the life of a child aged two, three, four or five. The truth is that the current system is far too slow and cumbersome, and it does not deliver the goods for the birth family, for the potential adoptive family and, most important of all, for the child.
§ Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)
I welcome the Secretary of State's statement that adoption should be the first resort rather than the last. Will he extend that principle to the advice given by the statutory agencies to 591 people who are considering having an abortion? At the moment, there is a dearth of advice about the alternative to an abortion: that is, giving birth and giving the child for adoption. Does he think that many more children would be born rather than aborted if the system enabled the birth mother to identify prospective adoptive parents in advance, and to have a say in the decision on which family should be given the child on adoption?
That principle operates in the United States. I have a relative who has adopted two children at birth in the US having discussed adoption with the mother beforehand. Surely that system should be applied in this country. Unlike those on the "Today" programme, I have not seen the White Paper, but I hope that it contains such a proposal.
§ Mr. Milburn
If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the "Today" programme team has seen the White Paper, he has another think coming. I shall let him into a little secret: I did not get the White Paper back from the printers until 10 o'clock, and the "Today" programme goes off the air at 8.59, but maybe he is right and I am wrong.
On the issue that the hon. Gentleman has just raised, what counts is choice. He does not have the right to make the choice for others any more than I do. It is the woman's right to make the choice, and she should be free to do so.
§ Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)
Today's statement will be excellent news for my constituents who have adopted children recently or are going through the difficult process right now and have lobbied me about equal rights with birth parents, especially on adoption allowances and paid leave. Those announcements will be very welcome to my constituents. When all the excellent proposals are put in place, will future adoptive parents be on an equal footing with natural parents in terms of paid leave, allowances and benefits?
§ Mr. Milburn
My hon. Friend is aware that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, when he announced his Green Paper proposals on parental and other leave, said that we will consult on precisely the issue that he has just raised. We are doing so, and there is undoubtedly a very strong case for that in many people's minds. That consultation is taking place, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will take part in it.
§ Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)
I welcome the statement. Clearly, a child is far happier with a loving mother and father than in an institution. Does the Secretary of State intend to facilitate or allow adoption by same-sex couples?
§ Mr. Milburn
We have no plans to change the current law, which is clear. That law operated under the previous Government, and will continue to operate under this Government. I shall make one important point. This issue is not about the rights of any individual or any couple to have a child. It is about the rights of the child. It is the 592 child's interests, the child's safety and the child's well-being that come first. With respect, neither the hon. Gentleman nor I can decide what is in the child's best interest. That is a matter for those who handle these difficult and sensitive issues, and in the end it is a matter for the courts.
§ Caroline Flint (Don Valley)
I welcome the statement. I am sorry to pop the bubble of festive consensus, but although some Conservative Members clearly felt strongly about this issue, from 1979 to 1997 nothing was done by successive Tory Governments to address it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government have done more to support family life in the past three years, whether for natural parents or adoptive parents, than any Government for many generations?
In his statement, my right hon. Friend said that a permanent placement would be sought after six months. Will he ensure that social services departments do not make unnecessary excuses for denying a child a permanent place? The problem is that there are too many children in the care system. They are damaged by their natural families, and then damaged by the system that they are put into. By the time they reach an age at which it is thought that they can go to an adoptive family, the damage has already been done.
On too many occasions, social services departments have not given enough support to adoptive parents. They have not informed adoptive parents of the background of the children—of their needs and, possibly, of the abuses that they have experienced. In such circumstances, it is important that discussion takes place—for the sake of those children, but also for the sake of those who will be adoptive siblings.
§ Mr. Milburn
I agree with much of what my hon. Friend has said. There are important lessons to be learned. To be fair, however, I must say that some local authorities—along with some voluntary adoption agencies—are doing a good job. We should not lose sight of that. The problem is that there are too few such organisations, which is why we must set national standards, establish a clear national adoption register and review the criteria for assessment, ensuring that they apply nationally as well as locally. Those are the things that we must do to eradicate what many would describe as one of the worst forms of the lottery of care that has been all too prevalent in the care system as a whole.
Yes: I think that, with the good will of voluntary adoption agencies, local authorities, the Government and, I hope, the House, it will be possible to bring about a fundamental transformation of the way in which the adoption system works