HC Deb 12 July 2000 vol 353 cc949-74

  1. '(1) There shall be established and maintained by the Commission in accordance with this section a list (referred to in this Act as "the National Adoption Register") recording all those persons suitable and willing to undertake the adoption of children in England and Wales.
  2. (2) The Secretary of State shall by regulations make provision for persons to apply to be entered in the National Adoption Register.
  3. (3) The Secretary of State shall by regulations make provisions for criteria to be set by which applications pursuant to the regulations mentioned in (2) above shall be assessed by the Commission.
  4. (4) The regulations in subsection (3) shall provide that any person who a local authority had determined within the period of five years prior to this section coming into force to be fit and proper to undertake adoption of children in England and Wales shall be entered in the National Adoption Register.
  5. (5) The regulations mentioned in (2) shall make provision for a person applying to be listed in the National Adoption Register to appeal against any decision to refuse to so list him.'.[Mrs. Spelman.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

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

We are most grateful that the new clause was included in the revised selection list. It provides us with an ideal opportunity to return to unfinished business that we began in Committee. Since then, important developments have taken place on adoption. The debate will allow us to contrast and compare the aims of our new clause and the Government's proposals. We could not engage in such a debate in Committee, although the Minister gave us heavy hints as to the imminent announcement of a national register.

The new clause provides for an adoption register of parents qualified to adopt, to be held by the National Care Standards Commission, according to nationally established criteria set by the Secretary of State. The provisions on adoption and fostering in this wide-ranging Bill offer us an opportunity to help to amend the law on adoption.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House probably agree that some amendment of the law is necessary. At present, the adoption process is too slow. Families need more support both during the adoption process and in the longer term. Help is needed when an adopted child enters a family, but difficulties can arise much later. Children adopted at the age of five or six might still manifest problems as they enter the troubled teenage years. That period is difficult enough, but it is even harder for young people who have to cope with the disruption to their life of being adopted when they were younger.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem is getting adopted in the first place? Children who need to be adopted are available only to potential adoptive parents in a particular county or region. Will the provision of a national adoption register under the new clause ensure matching, throughout England and Wales, of parents who want to adopt and children who are available for adoption?

Mrs. Spelman

My hon. Friend exactly understands one of the main aims of the new clause. It would remove the lottery aspect of the process—in which the family wanting to adopt is constrained by the immediate geographical region and by the variation in eligibility criteria under different local authorities. The new clause would do away with that. At present, adoption is a postcode lottery.

My hon. Friend touched on another important aim of the new clause. It would address the problem that 54,000 children languish in care—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady. The conversation below the Gangway should cease. We are holding a debate.

Mrs. Spelman

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

We have a poor track record because so many children are in care—54,000. On average, it takes four years for a child to be adopted. It is obviously detrimental for children who have already been damaged by being parted from their birth family to languish in care. Often, they move between various foster parents before they find security and stability in an adoptive family.

The new clause would impress on local authorities the urgent need to draw up plans for the children in their care. Contributing to the national register would increase opportunities for matching, which is restricted by geographical constraints on local authorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) pointed out, the creation of the national register would provide much better opportunities to obtain a good match.

Mr. Dawson

Does the hon. Lady accept that the views that she has expressed are accepted by hon. Members on both sides of the House? In fact, the proposal for a national register for adoption was included in the adoption consultation paper, which was published last week. As legislation is not required to do what she wants to do, is the new clause necessary? Can we not just accept that the whole House wants to do what is already in the consultation paper and therefore move on to the important clauses in the Bill?

Mr. Forth

What a silly man.

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mrs. Spelman

If consultation papers had such a powerful effect, many more of the Government's good intentions might have had some force in law. It is because we doubt that the Government have enough time to enact a provision that has power and effect that we have sought more urgently to use a Bill that is going through the House to implement the measures for a national register on which we all agree.

There are subtle differences between the Government's proposals in the consultation document for changing the process for adoption and our proposals, even though our aims are the same. It is worth while promoting the new clause to explain those differences.

We believe that the Government's proposal for how and where the register should be held suggests that there will be a lack of independence. The National Care Standards Commission is independent and an ideal body to hold such a national register. We are not satisfied that a register held by some local authorities, which simply draw together their data, is sufficiently independent—and independence will be important.

In the Government's document on adoption, the Prime Minister suggested that a new taskforce should be set up and that it should be called the new adoption and permanency taskforce. However, as I said to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), how much power and force does a consultative document have? We have also grown sceptical about the power and force of taskforces; they are not always all that they are cracked up to be.

We have a chance with this Bill to make progress and to proceed to implement the ideas that we have in common. I would describe our new clause as a bird in the hand, and a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The new clause offers us an opportunity here and now to make the changes.

Two other aspects of the new clause need to be assessed against the Prime Minister's proposals for adoption. Our subsection (4) would recognise that the parents who have already gone through the mill and qualified as adoptive parents on the existing criteria and within the past five years should not have to go through the whole rigmarole again. That is important. People with friends who have had to go through the adoption process know that it is traumatic. It is long drawn out and involves a series of personal and far-reaching interviews. I do not dispute the importance of the interviews, but everyone will agree that it would be hard on people if they had to go through that process all over again.

Dr. Brand

I will be interested to know whether the commission's role under the new clause would purely be to hold a register. Would it also have a role in determining the quality of vetting that took place before prospective adopters could go on to the register?

9.30 pm
Mrs. Spelman

The hon. Gentleman's intervention is helpful. He served on the Standing Committee, so he will recall that part of the Bill is devoted to the question of raising the status of social work and the General Social Care Council. As much of what he described as the vetting procedure will be carried out by qualified social care workers, the Bill will have the advantage of bringing about a rise in the status of that profession.

The hon. Gentleman asked specifically how we envisaged the role of the commission. We envisage principally that it would hold the national register, which would draw together all the adoptive parents registered with local authorities throughout Britain. However, if the vetting procedure is to work and be fair for adoptive parents and children, the cornerstone would be the national criteria set by the Secretary of State. Together, those two elements would make the vetting procedure fairer than the present system. The procedure would be carried out by qualified social workers, which would improve the position.

Another important difference between the proposal in our new clause and the consultative proposals in the adoption document concerns the appeals procedure. Proposed subsection (5) of the new clause would create a proper appeals procedure involving the independence of the commission. The Prime Minister's review of proposals to introduce an appeals mechanism for potential adopters is rather unclear about that. We feel strongly that the appeals procedure needs to involve an independent body. Page 5 of the Government document states: appeals mechanisms for potential adopters should be put in place in all Local Authorities. We are concerned about having an appeals procedure in a local authority, as potential adoptive parents who have been refused have to make an appeal to the body that refused them. The appeals procedure will be stronger and better if the appeal can be made to an independent body, which is in marked contrast to what is the consultative document.

Mr. Dawson

I am sure that the hon. Lady accepts that adoption is first and foremost a service for children rather than for would-be adopters.

Mrs. Spelman

I do not dispute that it is first and foremost for the children. However, quite a few parents feel that, at the moment, the system does not deal with them altogether fairly, especially when they compare the grounds on which they were rejected by their local authority with the grounds on which their friends may have been accepted in another local authority. That has fundamentally undermined the confidence of potential adopters in an appeals procedure which is limited in all local authorities. There is therefore an important distinction to be made between the Government's proposals and what we would like to achieve in the new clause. I am bound to say that I believe that our proposal is better and would have more support from adoptive parents.

It is important to grasp the nettle, as the Bill creates the opportunity to do something about adoption law. There is no question but that the time is ripe for reform. It is no secret that the previous Government had a draft adoption Bill ready in the last parliamentary Session, but ran out of time to introduce it. Even if the Government were to introduce legislation in the next parliamentary Session, that might not be a full Session so, to stop history repeating itself, we urge the Government to seize this legislative opportunity to introduce the national register which they said clearly in the consultative document they would like to accomplish.

As the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre says, most important are the children. Once displaced from their birth parents, rather like war children, what they most need is security and permanence; they do not need to be moved from pillar to post in the care system. A Department of Health local authority circular, reference No. LAC(98)20, states: Many local authorities achieve high standards in the provision of children's services… However, recent Social Services Inspectorate reports involving a number of local authorities demonstrate a lack of consistency and co-ordination in England in the overall quality of their adoption services. We believe that that reveals the need to hold the list at national level and to have nationally set criteria. The information revealed in the Department's own document should lead Health Ministers to draw the same conclusions that we have drawn.

The poor rate of adoption from the care sector reflects the poor level of therapeutic help available to displaced children. By involving the NCSC in a fresh approach to national adoption law, the new clause would create the opportunity to tackle the lack of such care provided during the process, both before and after adoption is complete. There is no doubt that a child who comes into care has already experienced some damage for which therapeutic help is needed; as the child moves into a transitional state—perhaps a foster home—more help may be required; and, as the child enters the adoptive family, yet more help will be needed.

However, there are other groups in the critical triangle who also need such help. Often, the complaint is made that the adopting family receives inadequate support once a child has been adopted. The extremely high failure rate—it is estimated that 20 per cent. of all adoptions break down—must be attributed in part to the lack of therapeutic help provided to the child and the adopting family.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's point and I am sure she is right about the causes, but may I point out that 20 per cent. is not an especially high rate of adoption breakdown? The fact that 80 per cent. of adoptions succeed, often with no support of any sort being received and despite the fact that nearly all the children involved have experienced some sort of trauma, demonstrates what a successful institution adoption is.

Mrs. Spelman

By referring to the 20 per cent. breakdown rate, I was not implying that adoption was anything but an excellent solution for many displaced children. However, I hope that the strategic role assigned to the NCSC by the new clause will ensure that the breakdown rate is even lower.

One more piece of the jigsaw could usefully be addressed by the NCSC: providing help to the relinquishing family. They are rather left out of the equation, which leads to the complex triangle between the child to be adopted, the adopting parents and the relinquishing family becoming unstable. Some adoption breakdowns are rooted in a poor process of relinquishment.

Mr. Dawson

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Spelman

I know that the hon. Gentleman cares passionately about the subject, but I should like to make some progress before giving way again.

There is no doubt that one of the advantages of having a national register would be improvement in the matching process. I carried out a little research into authorities local to me to find how practice can vary across the country. That is pertinent to the debate, because it is a problem that the new clause and the national register would address. I examined three local authorities which contrast in terms of size, socio-economic mix and other features. I would like to applaud their efforts, but I am using them to illustrate the extent of variation in practice between local authorities.

I shall take the example of the Coventry adoption service. It allows prospective parents from the city and the rural hinterland of north Warwickshire to adopt children under 12 months from its care. Most people start with a wish to adopt babies, but very few are available. That trend has developed over the past 20 years, with the increasing amount of birth control and support for younger women who choose to manage single handed with a small child. Coventry placed only two babies last year.

For children older than 12 months, the adoption team prefers adoption by parents who live within 50 miles of Coventry. However, adoption outside that radius is permitted, subject to the usual statutory checks by social services or by voluntary agencies such as the National Care Homes Association and Barnardos. Regional adoption is seen as the best option by the local authority because parents living further afield would face practical difficulties in attending Coventry's preparation groups in the run-up to adoption.

Our new clause is designed to address a practical point. There are cost constraints on local authorities, and that is one of the reasons why they tend to focus on a tight radius. The authority is thinking about the costs that will have to be met by prospective adoptive parents, and we should not forget the cost to social workers, who have to travel from their headquarters to interview parents. When those journeys are further afield, that adds significantly to the costs of a social services department. That will need to be addressed if we are to have an optimum matching process that allows a countrywide national register to be held and for the best match to be found.

Mr. Fabricant

Does my hon. Friend agree that speed is sometimes of the essence? Did she see a recent television programme that showed potential adopters, who said that they had been on the register for two years, but that after those two years of waiting they began to question whether they wanted to adopt, and came off the register? Sometimes it is a good thing that people can be matched early. That maximises the number of families that are prepared to adopt.

Mrs. Spelman

My hon. Friend makes an important and sensitive point. A couple may discover that they cannot have children quite late in life and quite close to the upper age limit, above which they are not able to adopt. The waiting process can be a time of terrible anxiety and uncertainty. Despite initial enthusiasm to adopt, some couples decide in the face of that sort of pressure that they cannot see the thing through to the end. It is hoped that, through the creation of a national register and much improved opportunities for matching and by setting national criteria that are clear and apply throughout the country, the process will become much quicker. The loss of confidence in the process and people giving up on it might become less common occurrences.

I shall give some contrasting examples. Another large local authority near to my constituency is Birmingham. It faces a particular challenge because a quarter of the children in its care are of dual parentage. For that reason, Birmingham focuses particularly on other large conurbations for non-white parents. That is another practical problem that would be overcome by introducing a national register. The capacity for an authority such as Birmingham, with many children of mixed ethnic origin, to find the optimum match would be made more easy.

I contrast that with a small authority, not to criticise that authority but to illustrate some of the problems and some of the reasons for the variation in eligibility criteria that would be resolved by the new clause. My constituency lies in the Solihull local authority. One of its difficulties is the matching process. Its age limit is children under two years of age. That is in contrast to the flanking local authorities. The age limit for parents is not applied in Birmingham and Coventry, but it is 35 in Solihull. Sometimes discretion can rightly be used, but that is Solihull's publicised upper age limit. Therefore, my constituents might well ask themselves why they should be subject to such an age limit when neighbours just over the border in other local authorities are not.

Solihull tries to match children with parents from the same race as a first choice, if necessary placing them with parents outside the borough to achieve its aim. It simply has to because it is so small. That highlights the problem that local authorities are so different in their composition, which has led to the variation in criteria.

9.45 pm

Some local authorities have restrictions on inter-country adoption. I had a constituency case where a couple particularly wanted to adopt from China. They had seen that moving documentary called "The Dying Rooms", which no doubt other hon. Members will have seen, about young Chinese girls left to die because in their society a baby boy is more revered than a baby girl. My constituent's response was to seek with total determination to adopt from China, but they were refused because of restrictions on inter-country adoption.

I am not clear whether that is the key factor that contributes to another rather harsh statistic, but I have my misgivings. It is significant that, if we look at the number of inter-country adoptions by a comparable developed European country with a similar sized population, such as France, we find that there were 3,666 inter-country adoptions last year, compared with 250 in the United Kingdom. That marked contrast must, in part, be explained by some of the criteria set by our local authorities in terms of allowing children to be adopted from certain other countries. I have direct experience of some restrictions on inter-country adoption in my local authority, which may be contributing to the low rate of inter-country adoption. That reinforces the importance of the need for nationally set criteria.

The new clause is all about making the adoption process easier and more effective, and, at its heart, helping children who languish in care—all to often for far too long for lack of a better process—to find permanency in a family that really wants to adopt them.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

It may assist my hon. Friend if I recount my experience of helping a family adopt a Romanian child during the last Parliament when I was much involved with eastern Europe. A child was successfully adopted and the family are very happy, but the parents, who were British nationals, suffered great anguish and heartache because the law was unclear at both ends. They sought to take a child from an orphanage who had little future—we all know about Romanian orphanages—to give that child a life over here, but at one point they were extremely worried that they might be arrested. I shared their considerable heartache and I commend what my hon. Friend is trying to do in the new clause.

Mrs. Spelman

My hon. Friend underlines what we are talking about here, which is that there is a lot of heartache in the adoption process, not only for those who are unsuccessful in adopting, but often for those who succeed, but who find the process a lot more difficult than they thought, and also, often, for the children involved who may never fully recover from the damage caused by being parted from the family that has relinquished them. That is why we must proceed with sensitivity but also with haste, in order to address some of the real problems that could in part be corrected by the new clause.

The new clause would be fairer both to the child and to the parents, given that the state has so obviously failed to fulfil its role as a corporate parent, as is shown by the statistics relating to children in care. We are dealing almost simultaneously with the Children (Leaving Care) Bill, and many of us have served on the Standing Committees considering both these Bills.

Those of us who have served on both Committees are all too aware that 80 per cent. of children leaving care end up homeless, 75 per cent. have no educational qualifications and—this particularly affects me when I think about it and put myself in the girls' shoes—one in seven of the girls leaving care is pregnant or a mother by the age of 16. We cannot hold our heads up high when we think about the role that the state has played as a corporate parent to those children in care.

For all those reasons, we strongly advocate a reform of adoption law so that it is possible for more of those children to leave care and to be adopted in a family—a family that is there not just till the child reaches the age of 16 or 18 or some other fixed limit, but in which, as in any family, a child is for life. That is a strong reason for reforming adoption law.

The Government's proposals do not get to grips with the problem of variation in eligibility. Local authorities such as mine, which have an upper age limit of 35 or 40 for parents, are getting into difficult territory. Women are delaying the age at which they have their first child. There are various social reasons for that—women are looking for equal employment opportunity, and will often wait for a considerable time before stopping to have a family. They may not realise that their fertility has declined during that time, and they may find, too late, when they have passed the age limits for adoption, that not only can they not conceive, but adoption is no longer open to them.

We strongly contend that there are parents over the age limits who offer good adoption opportunities for children in care, especially for children aged five, six, seven or eight and possibly children in their teens. Not enough consideration is given to the adoption prospects of children in their teenage years. It may well be right for them to be adopted by slightly older parents with more experience of slightly older children.

Mr. Tredinnick

To support of her argument, will my hon. Friend remind the House that medical science is progressing so quickly that ladies can give birth much later in life? There have been newspaper reports recently of women up to the age of 60 giving birth. Does that not make my hon. Friend's case for raising the age limit?

Mrs. Spelman

I should like to be able to agree with my hon. Friend, but the Prime Minister's wife had my sympathy when she gave birth at 45. There is no question that managing a very small baby as one gets older is more difficult. My father, who is almost 92, may have found me quite wearing when I was born.

The child must be the focus. A child coming from care with considerable luggage from the experience of being displaced may benefit from going into a family where the parents are older than 35 or 40, and joining a family in which the other children are of a similar age to the adopted child and the parents are experienced in dealing with children of that age.

In Northern Ireland, there is an active programme to promote the adoption of children in their teenage years and older parents are actively sought. That experience shows that variable and arbitrary criteria can sometimes be obstructive in the adoption process.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

Is there not a risk that having the one-size-fits-all option of a national register may result in the individuals to whom the hon. Lady is referring falling outside it? The flexibility that authorities offer at present may give hope to individuals that they may not have if there is only one option.

Mrs. Spelman

Two points arise from that intervention. First, there must be full consultation on the criteria that the Secretary of State will set. We should agree on that as a basic principle. The criteria must also be simple, straightforward and easy to understand. Secondly, we need discretion, such as that exercised by my local authority. Children are individuals; they are not an homogeneous mass. Those who have been in care have individual problems that need specific assessment.

The great thing about a national register and matching process would be that a child with highly specific needs would be far more likely to find the best match from a bigger pool of parents. The Government and the Opposition do not disagree on that, and the Government's consultative document states that they want a national register.

Behind the new clause lies a sense of urgency. We should like to change the law sooner rather than later. In Standing Committee, we heard the Minister's reasons for resisting an amendment—to a different part of the Bill—that was intended to achieve the same as new clause 6. He resisted it first because the Government were about to make an announcement on adoption, as they have since done. He suggested that we should not debate the matter further until the Government's proposals were on the table, after which we could have the fruitful discussion that we are holding now.

Secondly, the Minister argued that the Government could achieve a national register more quickly than would be achieved by an amendment to the Care Standards Bill. He said that the care standards commission would not be constituted until 2002 and that annual returns from local authorities, from which the national register would be drawn up, would not be supplied to it until 2003. I should like to revisit that point. The Government have produced only a consultative document, and I should feel much more confident if the Minister were to say that the Government would introduce a Bill early in the next session.

I am offering a risk-benefit analysis along the lines of my bird-in-the-hand analogy. If the Government should lose the next general election—always a possibility—and given that it is tipped to happen next May, some of the legislative programme announced in the next Queen's Speech would be likely to fall. That is not an unrealistic scenario. To allow the national register to come into existence, debate would have to begin early in the next session.

We are almost splitting hairs in saying that the legislation would come into force in 2001 while the care standards commission—the bird in the hand—will start in 2002. I cannot see why local authorities could not be urged to supply annual returns in time for when the care standards commission opens shop in 2002. Why lose another 12 months? Local authorities have the information, and we simply seek to legislate for that register to be held by an independent body.

Mr. Dawson

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who has given way three times, but it is not clear from her remarks that anything that she wants to achieve requires legislation.

Mrs. Spelman


It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business), That, at this day's sitting, the Care Standards Bill [Lords] may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Jamieson.]

Question agreed to.

As amended in the Standing Committee, again considered.

Question again proposed, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mrs. Spelman

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre has a background in social work and in Committee he contributed many points that informed our work. As relatively new Members, perhaps we can agree that we may not be world experts on the legislative process. However, in my experience consultative documents do not necessarily receive the force of the law that they need to achieve change such as that which we have described. For that reason, we have tabled the new clause.

I hope that the Minister will give legislative effect to the consultative proposals. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre nods, implying that he has the same hope. Obviously, I would like them to be finessed in the way that I have described, particularly on the point of the appeals procedure, which as proposed in the document is not sufficiently independent to inspire parents with confidence. Indeed, they do not have confidence in the process at present because it is far too in-house.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. We need to move swiftly and, given that the reform has been a while in gestation, the difference between 2001 and 2002 does not strike me as huge. The important point is whether we are to have a Bill that will bring it into force.

Mr. Ian Bruce

The answer to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) is simple. If the Minister does not need fresh legislation, it does not matter whether the new clause is included in the Bill. The Secretary of State could implement the reform under several pieces of legislation, but he needs the new clause to make progress if he does not have such a power at present.

Mrs. Spelman

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has much more experience of the legislative process than I, having been a Member for longer, so he knows exactly how to set out the choice—either/or. However, because this issue is sensitive and important, we do not want to be fobbed off. We need cast iron assurances that the reform will come into effect, as do all the parents who are frustrated by this tardy and haphazard process, which would be so much better were our new clause accepted.

Mr. Brazier

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to the excellent new clause 6, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman). It is set against the background of the positive Government document to which she referred several times, part of which concerns establishing a national register. Our new clause deals with that matter.

At this late hour, the House will be relieved to hear that I shall be brief. However, before dealing quickly with four detailed aspects, I remind hon. Members of the importance of establishing a national register and national standards. There are 54,000 children in care, of whom only slightly more than 2,000 were adopted last year. My hon. Friend gave some horrifying facts about the fate of many of those children. Up to a quarter of the girls become pregnant in care and we hear one sorry story after another. That is not to say that care workers and many devoted and loving foster parents do not do a good job, but in most cases adoption offers the best prospects for children in care because it provides permanence.

The case for a national register is overwhelming, and the best evidence of that is the performance league table for individual local authorities. The top three councils have adoption rates of between 10.5 per cent. and 14 per cent. of the children in their care, but more than 20 councils have rates of less than 1.5 per cent.

I wish to focus on one local authority that would benefit from a national register and some national standards. It happens to be a Labour council, but I do not mention it in a party political way. I should stress that the second best authority in the country, Middlesbrough, is a Labour council. Islington—left to itself, without a national register or national standards—has a miserable adoption rate of well under 2 per cent. of the children in its care.

The Voice—a very good Afro-Caribbean newspaper—has a lot of good advertisements on adoption, including one recently placed by Islington council. It contained a description of a little boy who needed a two-parent adoptive family who could reflect and promote his ethnic and religious identity as closely as possible. I do not wish to reflect at length on the views of some black members of an adoption group to which I belong, the Adoption Forum, about the good experiences that they had with white parents.

However, for a council to specify that it wants to match the religious identity and racial background of a little boy of less than two years old, and to imply that it is willing to hang on to that child—apparently indefinitely, as the council's poor figures indicate—if it cannot get that match shows how badly we need national standards and a national register.

I do not want to go over the general argument any further, except to say that there can be only a national solution to a situation where local performance is so patchy, varying from a few good councils to a large number that perform so badly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden has mentioned the need for a proper appeals procedure. There is a complicated process, whereby someone who has not been certified by one local authority to get on a list could be considered by another local authority. I prefer the provision in the new clause which makes it clear that there is an independent appeal outside the local authority system.

Independent management of the list is important. It would be quite wrong if the list were to be managed by the local authorities themselves. It would be wrong also if it were to be taken over by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, because although it has an important role to play—given to it by the Government—the list will not be seen as independent by adopters or older children hoping for adoption if it is controlled by the local authorities.

I was pleased to see in the back of the Government's consultation document that a large number of other groups—including the Adoption Forum, Adoption UK, which represents over 3,000 adoptive parents, and the National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and their Parents, which represents many ex-adopted children—are being consulted. I believe that the association shares that view.

It is critical that the measure is centrally funded. If the national register were set up and local authorities—some of which, such as Kent, are in difficulty with their social services funds—found that it became another service to pay for, there would be a danger that they would not use it. Also, the use of the register ought to be compulsory. I suspect that that is the Government's intention, but it is not clearly stated.

The present position is terrible in many local authority areas. The new clause gives us an opportunity to press the Government to get on with provisions that the preliminary consultation paper suggests already exist in outline, or at least constitute—in part—their intentions. It is disappointing—all the more reason for the new clause—that the next step will be another consultation paper, or at any rate a White Paper, some time before the end of the year, followed by another consultation period. I urge the Government to act as soon as possible.

Dr. Brand

I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on making such a strong case for a national register for prospective adoptive parents. I also congratulate her on explaining that we are not just talking about a database for adoptive parents; the register would have to play an active role. However, I hope that the hon. Lady does not assume—as others appeared to—that being on the register would confer entitlement to a child for those who could find one. There is still much hard work to be done to ensure that prospective adoptive parents are suitable to adopt prospective adopted children.

Mr. Fabricant

Of course I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that, but does he agree that—as I said earlier—speed is of the essence? Of course the safeguards of which he speaks should exist, but the new clause would help to speed up the process and to secure a better match, as it were.

Dr. Brand

Undue delay is never useful, but, in the context of adoption, speed is also dangerous. I have a problem with subsection (4) of the new clause, which confers an automatic right if, five years ago, someone said that certain people were suitable adoptive parents.

Things change with time; attitudes change with time. I would be worried about prospective adoptive parents who changed their minds after two years: I would be a bit concerned about how committed they had been to the adoption in the first place.

The hon. Member for Meriden wants an agency that does not fit in with the National Care Standards Commission. The commission is a regulator and an inspector, not a deliverer of services. Adoption is very much an active process. It is not just about regulation; it is about ensuring that things are done properly.

Mrs. Spelman

I think that there are two misunderstandings of what I said. The first concerns the five-year period. Obviously, someone who no longer met the eligibility criteria that had been set nationally would not still be eligible. Secondly, I did not mention an agency.

Dr. Brand

The commission is to set up the national adoption register, and run it. That worries me. I do not believe that the commission, which we discussed during—I think—22 Committee sittings, has ever been seen as a service deliverer. When I say "service deliverer", I mean a deliverer of personal social services, which is what we are talking about in the context of adoption.

I support the hon. Lady's plea for appropriate and speedy action, but let me gently say to her that the problem has not arisen over the past few years. Many of us have discussed it over the past 20 or 30 years. Moreover, the extra complications that the new clause would cause in regard to inter-country adoption pose a significant problem. It would not be possible to develop a national policy to deal with it on the spur of the moment.

10.15 pm

Therefore, I say with great regret that, although we recognise the need to look at a much better package for adoption—mainly to look after the interests of adopted children and the support structures that they and their adoptive parents will need after adoption—I cannot support new clause 6. I do not think that that activity sits happily with—

Mr. Brazier

The hon. Gentleman queries the role of the particular organisation concerned. Does he none the less accept that it is critical that the register be handled by an organisation that is independent of the local authorities themselves?

Dr. Brand

That is a valuable contribution. The hon. Gentleman is right. We are repeating our argument over standards in residential homes. There should be criteria that should not be breached by anyone if they want to become adoptive parents, but then there should be an assessment to see whether those criteria fit the particular child. That creates enormous complexity. We get add-ons to the basic criteria, which will have to be put somewhere on the register to see whether a match can be done.

It is like being a blood donor. A person may be group O, but there may be sub-groups that make that person unsuitable for giving blood to a particular patient. There is complexity in relation to adoption. There is an on-going activity which does not sit happily with the commission as we have discussed it. Therefore, unhappily, neither I nor my colleagues will be able to support the new clause.

Mr. Fabricant

Despite the contribution from the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand), I cannot help but think there is a degree of unanimity of support for the general thrust—

Dr. Brand

For the objective.

Mr. Fabricant

—for the objective of new clause 6. We must all accept that the present position will not do. The Utting report discussed the regulation of private fostering and was highly critical of the present arrangements. It concluded that private fostering as well as general fostering was an area where children were not being safeguarded properly. It summarised the position by saying that the present arrangements were unworkable.

The tragedy is that there are 54,000 children in care, yet there is a mismatch between the 54,000 children in care, most of whom would be better looked after in foster homes, and the number of people seeking to foster children. [Interruption.] The children are in foster homes, but they would like to be adopted by private families; I thank hon. Members for correcting me. My point is that there is a mismatch between the number of children who are in foster homes—in care—who should be adopted and the number of private families. A private family can offer a better environment for bringing up children. Again, I do not believe that there is any argument about that in the House.

Just as I think that all parties in the House would say that, where there is a mismatch between the number of people who are seeking a job and the availability of jobs, there should be mobility of labour, so I believe that there should be a mobility of children. It is wrong that there should be the mismatch of which I have spoken.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) pointed out, there is a huge variation between those areas where potential parents cannot be aged over 35 and those where the age limit is 40. That is not the only criterion that is different. In many different areas, many different criteria are used.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) said that he supported the general motive of the new clause, yet he asked what the point was of adding it to the Bill because it is in the Prime Minister's review of adoption. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden said, good intentions are not enough. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) asked, if the Government believe that a national register is a good idea in principle, why do they object to new clause 6?

In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, I made the point that there have been cases in which, after two or three years of waiting on a list, prospective parents have changed their minds about adopting. They have simply been discouraged by authorities saying, "You may or may not be suitable to adopt." People have second thoughts about adopting, as was shown in a recent television programme. Like other hon. Members, I have also seen such cases in my own constituency.

Mr. Ian Bruce

The Government rightly received an enormous amount of good publicity for their announcement that they would establish a national register, and we thought that that announcement was reality rather than spin. Is it not extraordinary that, now that a clause to do exactly that is being presented to them, they say, "No, we don't want to do it yet"? Are they not simply spinning, rather than getting on and doing something?

Mr. Fabricant

As I should like to think of this as a harmonious, cross-party debate, I shall not enter the debate on spin. Nevertheless, I do have to ask why Ministers are not keen to accept new clause 6. Undoubtedly, the Minister will eventually give us those reasons. However, even if the Government are not happy with the details of new clause 6, surely the new clause's principle could be included in the Bill. There is a vacuum in any such provision, resulting in 54,000 children being left in care.

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden described the position of the United Kingdom in relation to other countries on the inter-country movement of children. As we heard, only about 250 children from abroad have been adopted in the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) described such a case in his own constituency.

I have a similar case in my constituency, involving a family in Burntwood who want to adopt a young child from Romania. They are having great problems in adopting the child not only because of the different adoption criteria of different local authorities, but because the immigration authorities have said that the child has overstayed his leave to remain in the United Kingdom, thereby forcing the family to race against the clock in their attempt to adopt. The child may be sent back to Romania—not to go into care, but to be returned to the home, with quite dreadful conditions, from which he was only recently extricated.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden said, a national register has two advantages, the first of which would be central funding. Surely our duty of care to children in care applies equally to all children who will affected by the Bill—in this case, to children in England and Wales. There should not be regional variations in the exercise of that duty, and a centrally funded national register would ensure that each area has equal resources.

The second advantage would be central standards. I must confess that I had some sympathy with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight when he expressed reservations about new clause 6(4). He argued that people who had been included on an adoption register up to five years previously might no longer be suitable to adopt. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden that if new clause 6 is accepted, one of the tasks for the commission that maintains the national register would be very quickly to inspect the families hoping to adopt who had been put on a local authority register more than two or three years previously. Those families circumstances may have changed in the intervening period.

At present there is too much variation. There are about 80 independent fostering agencies and about 35 voluntary adoption agencies with a total of 60 branches. The situation is dire. There are 54,000 children in care, and that is 54,000 children too many. If there were 54,000 children in care with hardly anyone seeking to adopt, at least the position would be understandable, but that is not the case. There are more than 10,000 families seeking to adopt children. If new clause 6 means that some, if not all, of those 54,000 children in care can be adopted into a stable family environment, it should be adopted by the House tonight.

Mr. Collins

I was struck by the comments of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand), who produced a number of superficially cogent reasons why he felt that although the objective was shared by all hon. Members, new clause 6 was not the best means of securing it. In many respects the debate so far has established that with adoption, the best is often the enemy of the good.

Although the hon. Gentleman may be right that to say at some time in the future there might be a superior legislative vehicle, this is the only one available in the current parliamentary Session; it may well be the only legislative vehicle available before the next general election. So, despite the fact that the hon. Gentleman's arguments seem to have some force, if the alternative is to wait not just months, but possibly years for any legislation on the matter, accepting new clause 6, possibly with an undertaking to amend or improve it in another place, would be a sensible means of making progress.

The same argument applies to the important points made by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), who acknowledged that the new clause embodied an important objective, but asked why we had to have this debate. It is important to recognise that we are dealing with a subject that should be properly debated and fully discussed.

In that context, I would like to put on record something on which hon. Members on both sides of the House are united, but which has not been properly expressed tonight. Although there is a general preference and presumption in favour of adoption over local authority care, that does not mean that any right hon. or hon. Member is belittling the enormous contribution made by people who work in local authority care, many of whom do an immensely good job, work extremely hard and should be rewarded and applauded for the sacrifices that they make. However tonight's debate concludes, many children—particularly those who are in care—will be looked after by local authority care workers for a long time. In the overwhelming majority of cases, they will be looked after extremely well. It is important that that should be put on record in the overall context of adoption.

Mr. Dawson

I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. Does he accept that a large proportion of children and young people in care still have good relationships with their natural families and often return to them shortly after being taken into care? Therefore, a large proportion of young people in care are not available for adoption, which in any case would not be appropriate for them.

Mr. Collins

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is essential to recognise that although there is cross-party agreement that adoption should be made easier and more widespread, there will always be a continuing role for local authority care, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, among others.

10.30 pm

The hon. Gentleman spoke about cases in which adoption is rarely, if ever, the best outcome. However, it is important to stress that in most other cases adoption offers the best prospect of giving children permanent and secure homes in a genuine family atmosphere. Moreover, there is a long-term aspect. Children's need for emotional, financial or practical support does not end at 16 or 18. It may be easier for them to receive that from adoptive parents than from local authorities, which, given the calls on resources, tend to concentrate their efforts on younger children.

Most children would benefit if a national adoption register, as provided for in new clause 6, were established. As the hon. Gentleman said, the child's interests must come first. However, there is often no conflict between the interests of the child and those potential adoptive parents. Both sides are seeking to create a loving family atmosphere from which all involved can benefit. I know that the hon. Gentleman did not mean to imply it, but it is important to accept that there is not necessarily a conflict of interests in such cases.

The House seems to agree about the principle of a national adoption register. What should be its characteristics? I agree with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) that such a register has taken a long time to arrive, having been promised by Governments of all political colours. I hope that we will move forward with it, and I welcome the conclusions in the consultative paper that suggest that the Government are persuaded of the need for the register.

The register must set out clear standards that are openly arrived at and clearly understood. Implicit within new clause 6 is the question of the extent to which criteria for inclusion in the register are widely explained, so that people understand them. They should be published, on the internet and elsewhere, so that people will be able to understand why they have or have not been included. Understanding is limited at present by the different approaches adopted by local authorities.

New clause 6 offers potential adoptive parents two possible routes by which they may get on to a register. Under new clause 6(4), they can apply to their local authority.

Mr. Fabricant

Does my hon. Friend share my concern—which I am ashamed to say was also expressed by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand)—that people considered suitable by a local authority five years ago may not now be considered suitable?

Mr. Collins

I take the point, which was made originally by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight. I understand why some time period should be specified, and I can see why five years was chosen, although I am not sure that that is the right length of time. However, a much shorter period would require quite a lot of bureaucracy, as what would amount to a rolling review would have to be instituted.

In addition, a proper notification mechanism would be needed for people on the register who are no longer considered suitable. The reasons for such a change may be more or less dramatic, but we need a clear procedure by which the local authority, or other public body that acquired the relevant information, could notify the holders of the national register and get the person concerned removed as fast as possible.

The time involved would have to be more than a year, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) that five years may not be ideal. However, as I said earlier, the best can sometimes be the enemy of the good. Even though I would not die in the trench for every word of new clause 6, I would rather have it than not have any such provision at all.

I was talking earlier about the two routes by which a potential adoptive parent could register interest and be approved. The first is the existing route through the local authority. The second, which is set out under the procedures covered by subsections (2) and (3) of new clause 6, would allow people to apply directly to the holders of the national adoption register for inclusion there and then. Potential adoptive parents who, for whatever reason—perhaps no more than a simple personality clash—feel that they have incurred the displeasure of their local authority, or rather, the small number of decision makers in their local authority, and who, for good reasons or ill, have lost confidence in their local authority, could have a second bite of the cherry. This should not be a way of enabling clearly unsuitable candidates to exploit a loophole and get on to a register. However, borderline candidates, or those who had a problem at the start of their application process, would know more clearly the reason for the decision that was reached, even if the final answer was still no. They would know that their case had been properly aired by people who were not headquartered in their local area.

Proposed subsection (5) of new clause 6 would allow appeals to be made. In her excellent speech introducing the new clause, my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) explained why it would be desirable to have an appeal mechanism independent of the local authorities. She explained that that is a slightly different approach from that set out by the Government in their consultation paper, because it would involve something more than a simple aggregate of local authorities across England and Wales. That is an important point, which I hope that the Minister will address in his remarks.

Whether the body holding the register should be, as the Government propose, an aggregate of the local authorities, or whether it should be, as is proposed in new clause 6, the National Care Standards Commission or another body, the appeals mechanism must be seen to be independent of the holding body. It would not be in the spirit of new clause 6 if the appeals mechanism set up by the National Care Standards Commission to allow its decisions to be appealed against, were part of the commission. "Independent" must mean independent of the commission as well as of local authorities.

The objective of new clause 6 is very important. It is clear from what has been said, and from the many powerful examples cited by my hon. Friends and others, that, unfortunately, we have a postcode lottery. Potential adoptive parents and children are treated very differently according to where they are resident at any given time. That is difficult to justify, and although inherent in any system of local discretion and local authority control is the possibility of differentiation, the differences described in the debate are on such a scale as to be difficult to justify. The principle of a national register must be right, and it must be right that we put such a register on the statute book as soon as possible.

I was intrigued by the earlier remarks of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre. He said that he believed that it would be possible for progress to be made on the Government's report without legislation. He seemed to be saying that he thought that it would be possible for a register to be set up without any statutory framework. The hon. Gentleman is nodding vigorously, so I must be paraphrasing his remarks accurately. I should be very interested to hear whether the Minister confirms that, and if so, whether the Government intend to proceed with establishing a register in advance of legislation. If they intend to do so, would such a register be made statutory sooner rather than later, or do they foresee an indefinite period during which the register would operate with no statutory backing? That could raise difficulties when controversial decisions—in a minority of cases, I hope—were appealed against in the courts. If the register had no statutory backing, the Government would be creating a rod for their own back.

Mr. Fabricant

Does my hon. Friend agree that if such a register had no statutory backing, local authorities would have no statutory obligation to provide information for it? Just as there is a patchwork of criteria across local authorities for people who are allowed to adopt, so there might be differences in the degree of co-operation authorities would be prepared to offer with such a register if it had no statutory backing.

Mr. Collins

I take my hon. Friend's point. The vast majority of local authorities would want to co-operate, whatever their political control. However, we are dealing with a disparate range of local authorities and, without statutory backing, there is less chance of receiving 100 per cent. co-operation from 100 per cent. of them, if only because local authority officers—who, as we know from our constituency work, are often greatly burdened with responsibilities and the other requirements that are pressed on them—tell us that they are barely able to keep up with their statutory duties.

Those officers certainly would not be able to undertake duties that were, in effect, voluntary. Some of them might downgrade their co-operation with the register—although not in a deliberate attempt at sabotage. They would tell the elected councillors that they must carry out Parliament's statutory requirements. Only when they had done that would they be able to undertake other activities. Those activities might well be desirable, but they would not have the time or resources to undertake them.

Early statutory backing for a national register is important. The new clause offers an appropriate mechanism for debating it. I hope that the Government will look with favour on the provision—ideally this evening. Ministers listened constructively when we debated the measure in Committee, so I hope that in that spirit, they might reflect on the new clause and offer us some thoughts on it at a later stage.

It is important to acknowledge that if we place the welfare of the child at the centre of our objectives—as we should—the best means to advance that welfare will be to ensure that the child, or those who make decisions on the child's behalf, have access to the widest possible pool of potential adoptive parents. That cannot happen when the pool in any given area is confined by the local authority. Only if it is national can the pool be as large as it should. That is why I hope that, whatever the fate of the new clause, we move as swiftly as possible towards the establishment of a national adoption register.

Mr. Ian Bruce

I speak to the new clause from two aspects of my personal experience. First, I am the joint chairman of the all-party group on street children. I see that one of the other joint chairmen, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), is leaving the Chamber. She is probably going for a rest. Secondly, my wife and I were short-term foster parents for several years. Both those experiences are relevant to our discussion of the new clause.

Whenever the all-party group makes overseas visits in connection with its work on street children, we meet British people who have taken an enormous amount of time and trouble to adopt children from the country in question—however difficult it is to reach. When we ask them why they have done so, the answer always comes back to the fact that, in the UK, they were barred for being too old or the wrong colour or whatever. There is an enormous latent demand from parents who want to adopt children.

We often say that the primary purpose of any adoption must be the benefit of the child—that is a given. However, if an adoption is not to the benefit of the parents as well, there cannot be a proper match. No childless couple or individual adopts a child other than to fulfil a need. There is a natural human desire to have children and to bring them up. My wife and I have been lucky enough to have four children, and bringing them up—however well or badly we have done it—is our greatest achievement. We must take account of the couples who want to adopt children, because they are likely to provide the best homes for them.

10.45 pm

I wish to describe the experience that my wife and I had when we decided we wanted to become short-term foster parents. At the time when my first son was born, we lived in Scotland. My wife had given up work and we thought that we could do short-term fostering in our house while we brought up our young children. We therefore made inquiries but, after six months, a decision had still not be made as to whether we were a suitable couple to become short-term foster parents.

We moved, so we started the process again in West Yorkshire when that was a county authority dealing with fostering. We met wonderful people who were clearly concerned about children, but we never met anyone who seemed to have any common sense. I am grateful that our social worker friend, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), is smiling at that. We had meetings, but then everything would go quiet for three months. We would ring up to find out what was happening about the fostering and someone would say, "I've been terribly busy, so I'll come and see you again." We would have another meeting and another three months would go by.

Social workers investigated my work and our family. The strange thing is that in the time they took to decide whether we were a suitable couple—it was more than a year—my wife became pregnant with our second child and I lost my job. By the time our background had been investigated and the social workers had decided we were suitable, our circumstances had completely changed. The process was daft.

We should not accept people who walk in off the street as short-term foster parents, but we must get on with the process of carrying out the investigations. One of the problems is that the social workers who are responsible for the children with difficulties who might be suitable for short or long-term fostering and adoption—that is sometimes the ideal route—are so swamped with social problems that they have no time to consider whether the right type of parents are available to adopt the children. Even more important, areas with social problems are not likely to be the areas where the mass of the potential adoptive parents live. There is a mismatch between the areas affected by social problems and the areas where the more stable families who are better able to look after children live.

That mismatch takes place between different local authorities, and a national register would at least start to address that problem. If we had more time, the new clause could have gone much further in describing how we could establish the register. However, such a register might kick-start the process so that it works properly.

Another problem in the adoption process is the fault of Parliament. Every time a child is abused in the system—unfortunately, an awful lot of that abuse has happened in children's homes—we pile on social workers rules and regulations that make them so incredibly scared and careful that they cannot take a step without making yet another check. They cannot lose their job for refusing to approve someone as an adoptive parent, but they might be criticised in a judicial inquiry set up by this place if they make a mistake.

We know that if we leave children in children's homes, and do not give them permanent families, they are at enormous risk. I do not know how many children have been abused by their adoptive parents, but I suspect that the number is tiny: I cannot recollect a case that has been in all the newspapers. We would remember such a case and comment on the fact that adopted children were being abused. That does not seem to be happening.

Mr. Brazier

The councils with the worst records on abuse in children's homes and among foster carers—Lambeth council has been the source of recent, well-publicised examples of the latter—are the same councils that are exceptionally poor at putting children out for adoption. My hon. Friend is therefore entirely right to say that the endless checking of politically correct minutiae does not keep abuse at bay.

Mr. Bruce

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is much more knowledgeable about such cases than I am.

This may sound too political, but when the Government want a good headline, they announce that they will do something about this problem. I made speeches similar to this when the Conservative party was in power because I wanted the system to work better. The Government could do something rather than just talking about it, and they could benefit their political careers—if that is a requirement for getting something done, that is fine. However, it is not acceptable that the Government should brush the new clause under the carpet and say that this would be a good thing to put in their manifesto and act on in the next Parliament; action should be taken now. Let us not have any delay.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

I am glad to have the opportunity to make a short contribution to the debate. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and to the House for the fact that I was unable to hear the whole of her speech. I strongly support new clause 6, and this is a good opportunity for the House to consider it. The House is particularly lucky to have the Minister of State to reply to the debate, because he has been at the forefront of the Government's efforts to introduce and speed up change in adoption. He has chaired the performance and innovation unit's steering committee, which has looked into the matter.

Those of us who believe that the new clause should have a fair wind find a good deal of support from a pretty powerful source because page 4 of the adoption report contains an introduction by the Prime Minister. He says: It is clear from the PIU report that there are some things we can get on with quickly. Over the next few months we will therefore: develop and implement proposals for a National Adoption Register… The question is how one implements that, and my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden is absolutely right to table the new clause to find out whether the policy can be implemented in this Bill.

I think that Members on both sides of the House agree that the changes and welcome innovations in adoption law have been a long time coming. We know that there is pressure on legislative time in any Parliament, but it is exceptionally heavy in the current Parliament—the Government have packed this Session with Bills. I say that not to be controversial but to emphasise that when there is a parliamentary vehicle available for a purpose, it should not lightly be set aside.

We have heard what the Prime Minister has said on the subject and we know that it will be considered over the next few months. The consultation document issued this month allows for a proper consultation period—not one that is unduly short, as others have been, but one lasting three months, with receipt of consultation responses expected by 6 October. I doubt that the House will return after the long recess before that date; in addition, those who are expert in the subject will know what to expect in the way of responses to the consultation and will have time to assimilate them.

With all that in mind, I would argue that it is not impractical, in parliamentary terms, to include in the Bill a statutory framework for a national adoption register; nor would it be inconsistent with the Government's manner of legislating—which we sometimes deplore, but which might be appropriate in this case—if the new clause were accepted as the vehicle and, provided that the principles were set down in the primary legislation, modified to some extent to enable the details of a national adoption register to be dealt with in secondary legislation.

I hope that I have established that there are perfectly sensible reasons to accept the new clause now, before the Bill is returned to the other place in the normal course of events. The Bill came from the other place on 5 April without the issues addressed in new clause 6 having been debated, because it was only in February that the Prime Minister had made his—welcome—announcement of a personal initiative to take a grip on adoption. The Prime Minister has been subject to great pressure in recent weeks—rightly so, most Conservatives would think—but on this subject we can find common ground with him. He has spoken a lot of good sense and we are glad to lend our constructive support to his efforts.

Mr. Bruce

My right hon. and learned Friend says that the new clause, if accepted, could subsequently be altered in the other place. I note that it begins by saying that a register: shall be established but, if the Government are reluctant, they could modify it in the Lords and replace "shall" with "may". That would give the Government a permissive power, but not force them to act.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. I have suggested that the modification might be achieved through secondary legislation, but the method and timing would be a matter for the Government of the day. The fact is that our purpose could be achieved legislatively without difficulty.

Having dealt with the framework, I turn to the substance of the matter and the argument in favour of establishing a national register. The whole House would agree that to set out to be approved as a prospective adoptive parent is a daunting pilgrimage. Two features of adoption stick out starkly. The demand for children to adopt where those children are very young, or not so young but have been taken into care, substantially exceeds the supply of children to be adopted. By contrast, although, happily, there is a significant pool of parents who are willing to adopt children from care—many are parents who have fostered children, like my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) has done, and are willing to move on to adoption—that pool could valuably be increased. A national adoption register would provide a good method of encouraging people to consider adopting from children in care.

11 pm

Let us not exaggerate the number of children in care who are available to be adopted. The consultation document shows that there were some 55,300 children in care in 1998, but obviously by no means all of those would be candidates for adoption—the figure would probably be 1,000 or 2,000. I might be being unduly pessimistic, but I think that about 2,000 children from that pool of 55,000 have been adopted over the years. Perhaps the Minister can tell us over how many years how many children have been adopted from the pool of children in care.

Another interesting fact in the consultative report is that the United States is a little bit ahead of us in this area. Britain can be proud of being second in the world in the proportion of children adopted from the pool of children in care. We achieve some 4 per cent. The United States achieves some 7 per cent.—about 1,500 children. I am not sure if it is 1,500 children a year or at any one time—no doubt the Minister will elucidate—but it is getting on for double the number of children.

Also striking is the average age of children who are adopted in the United States. In Britain, the average age is one year and two months. In the United States—this is highly significant for children in care—the mean age is six years and nine months. In other words, there are pools of parents in the United States who are willing to take on the tremendously important, and in a way significantly more difficult, role of adopting such children.

The process of encouraging that must be taken gently over a number of years, but the national register will provide a sensible way of getting started on that desirable route. It will provide parents who may hitherto have been daunted with an opportunity to talk through the problems with professionals. The fact that it is done with professionals on a national basis, and in circumstances where an immediate pressing desire for adoption is rather less acute than in some other cases, will enable it to be done well. There will be an opportunity for both the potential parents and the authorities to reflect, for the potential parents to be assessed, for a conclusion to be reached, and, hopefully, for a significant number to be included in the register.

Those who are included in the register will be able to find a suitable child to adopt whom they may well have fostered on an interim basis in the meantime, providing a better life for a small but none the less significant proportion of those 55,000 children who are in care. Of course, one hopes that a significant proportion of those children will go back to their own parents in due course, but there are many who do not have that opportunity. The national register will enable many hundreds, perhaps a few thousand, to find a happier home, and that is something on which all hon. Members will agree.

Mr. Hutton

I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. On the occasions when we can agree on a sensible way forward, we should not be shy in saying so, and the national adoption register commands a substantial measure of support in the House as a sensible way in which to proceed. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), whom I thank for his kind comments about me, displayed the mastery of a brief which we lawyers like to display. As a former Attorney-General, he showed himself in his finest colours tonight in his mastery of the intricacies of the performance and innovation unit report.

I shall try to confine my remarks to the substance of the new clause, which calls for the establishment of a national adoption register under the auspices of the National Care Standards Commission. I shall explain to the House the Government's commitment to establishing a national adoption register, as several hon. Members have asked me to do in detail. I shall also explain why new clause 6 is probably not the most sensible way to go about it.

Having undertaken the review and received the recommendations of the PIU, which prepared the report, the Government decided to take a number of steps. We are committed to the establishment of a national adoption register for England and Wales. Let me make it clear to Opposition Members who raised the issue that, as stated in the PIU report, we intend to tender for the operation of the national adoption register. Later this year, we will invite applications to operate the register. We hope to get the register up and running some time next year.

The PIU report raises the question whether we need any legislative underpinning for the national adoption register. We are consulting on that. If legislation is required to establish the register, we will include those proposals in the legislation that we plan for next year. However, it is desirable that we should go ahead now with the establishment of a national adoption register, and that is what we intend to do.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) asked how we would do that. We have an opportunity to use the powers in section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 to issue statutory guidance to local authorities, if that is the mechanism for making sure that the register remains an accurate register of children and approved prospective adopters.

The Government are going ahead with establishing the register. We want to do it quickly, and we are grateful for the support expressed by hon. Members for the register.

What is wrong with new clause 6? Why should we not incorporate it in the Bill? There are three or four problems with the new clause. First, it deals only with local authority approved adoptive parents. It is not clear how the register proposed by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) would work in relation to adopters approved by voluntary adoption agencies. Many hon. Members expressed their support in principle for the work that VAAs do. The new clause would exclude adoptive parents who had been approved by VAAs. That is not a sensible way forward.

Secondly, and more problematically, the new clause does not provide for the inclusion of children available for adoption. If the purpose of the register is to match prospective adoptive parents with children, the hon. Lady's solution clearly will not achieve that, because there is no provision in the new clause for children to be recorded on the database that she wants the National Care Standards Commission to operate.

If those problems were not sufficient to persuade the House not to support the new clause, the other difficulty—which is the same difficulty that we encountered when the hon. Lady moved a similar new clause in the Standing Committee—is that the establishment of the commission will take about two years. We intend to establish the commission from next April. Presumably, the national adoption register would come into operation some time after that.

Given the support that I have heard tonight for such a register, I do not believe that many hon. Members, having studied the proposals moved by the hon. Lady, would want us to hang around for that length of time before we establish the register. We should get on and do it as soon as possible. That is what we shall do. We believe that we can do that and operate the register using the powers that we have. It is essentially an administrative arrangement. If we need to underpin it with primary legislation, we will do so next year. Despite the positive and welcome comments in support of the register that we heard tonight—

Mr. Ian Bruce

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hutton

I am not giving way. It is probably best that the House gives its blessing to the Government's proposals and that we get on with establishing the register. If we need to return to the matter in primary legislation, we will do that next year.

Mrs. Spelman

When we prepared the new clause, the Government had not made their proposals. We have learned a great deal more since then. We accept what the Minister says about the Government introducing legislation early in the next Session. That is entirely in the spirit of consensus in which the debate on the new clause has been conducted. If the Government introduce the legislation early in the legislative programme next year, we will certainly support it—[Interruption.] I hope that the Minister is listening to the kind offer that I am making—as we are all agreed that we want to establish a national adoption register. When we make nice offers, it is important that they should be received.

The point about legislative underpinning is an important one. I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) for making it. I should hate it if we looked back in a year's time to realise that we had missed an opportunity. We accept that section 7 of the Local Government Bill may provide powers to make local authorities make the changes happen.

Having made those points, and given that we accept the Minister's points about inadequacies in our drafting—we do not have the resources at our disposal that the Government have—we will withdraw the new clause and look forward to seeing a legislative proposal early in the next session. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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