§ Amendments made: No. 243, in page 75, line 35, leave out "40(5) to (9)".
No. 244, in page 75, line 35, after "61(2) to (5)" insert—
'63(2)(a) and (b) and (2A)'.
No. 245, in page 75, line 37, leave out subsection (4) and insert—
'( ) The following extend also to Scotland—
No. 246, in page 75, line 39, leave out "paragraph 15 extends" and insert—
paragraphs 12A and 15 extend'.—[Jacqui Smith.]
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Will hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber please do so quickly and quietly, so that we can get on with Third Reading?
Order for Third Reading read.
§ Jacqui Smith
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
We have had more than two days of valuable and constructive debate on the Report stage of the Bill, conducted in the positive spirit that has characterised the Bill's passage up to this point. Since the Bill was introduced last October, we have had wide-ranging debates on its principles and on the detailed provisions.
The Bill was referred to a Special Standing Committee, which gave Members the opportunity to hear from key stakeholders in the adoption community and acknowledged experts in the field. That consultative approach was a very positive experience, and it provides an example for the future. Following the evidence sessions, the Bill was considered in detail by the Special Standing Committee. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friends, particularly those who brought their considerable expertise to the Committee. May I say what a pleasure it was to be surrounded by so many ex-social workers? Other hon. Members brought to the proceedings important experience of constituency casework and even personal experience of adoption. It was invaluable to take part in such an informed debate, and the Bill has undoubtedly benefited from it.
Throughout the process we have had as our focus the aim of ensuring that all children have the best start in life. Adoption can have an important role in providing a new start for many children, and can make the difference between a child having a loving, stable and permanent family or being left in the care of the local authority.
The Bill overhauls the outdated Adoption Act 1976 and modernises the whole existing legal framework for domestic and inter-country adoption. It is over a quarter 98 of a century since the legislative framework was last reviewed, and I hope that the Bill will set out a new framework that will last well into this century.
The Bill tackles the issues that have troubled the adoption service for many years. The fundamental change that it makes, which is welcomed on both sides of the House and by stakeholders, is that it puts the needs of the child at the centre of the adoption process. It also recognises that adoption, while bringing great joy and satisfaction to many people, is a tough job. It will help to ensure that the support that adopters and children need is available by providing for the first time a duty on local authorities to put in place a range of adoption support services.
The Bill will help to cut harmful delays through the introduction of the Adoption and Children Act register and through timetabling of court proceedings. Importantly, as we have heard today, the Bill strengthens the safeguards around adoption, inter-country and domestic, and introduces a new special guardianship order to provide permanent families for children for whom adoption is not appropriate.
In Committee, genuine concerns were raised and suggestions were made about areas in which the Bill could be improved. We listened to those, and as a result we have been able to make changes as the Bill has made its way through the House. On access to information, concerns were expressed about the access for adopted persons to information that would enable them to obtain a copy of their original birth certificate. In light of those comments I tabled amendments to ensure that information from adoption agencies, which is required to access birth records, will be provided. With the amendments made on Report, the Bill will now put in place a system for disclosure of information about adoption that is both comprehensive and fair.
Considering the sensitivity about adoption, it is not surprising that there was concern about consent. It was felt that the provision stating that consent had to be given freely did not reflect the fact that, although birth parents may know that adoption is best for the child, coming to this decision means struggling against their own feelings. Although we have not had time to debate that, we have listened to those concerns and amended the Bill to reflect that.
Today we made amendments to enable social services to provide accommodation or the means to secure it. I am pleased that the Bill establishes local authority powers in this area beyond doubt. We have ensured that the care planning process, which is so important for children, is placed on a statutory basis with proper independent review.
The impact of domestic violence on the child has not been fully considered when courts consider granting contact orders under the Children Act 1989. In response, we tabled an amendment on Report to extend the definition of "harm" in the Act to make it clear that it includes any harm that a child may suffer or is at risk of suffering as a result of witnessing the ill-treatment of another. As hon. Members will have noted on Thursday, that was due to the work of several of my hon. Friends, but also to a willingness to respond on the part of the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton). She should be congratulated not only on that, but on her efforts throughout the Bill's progress. 99 While the Bill was in Committee, the Scottish Executive signalled that they wished to be able to participate in the Adoption and Children Act register. On Report, we tabled the necessary amendments to enable that to happen. The inclusion of Scotland in the register will benefit children and adopters throughout England, Scotland and Wales, and will provide an extensive infrastructure for finding families for children who need them.
§ Jonathan Shaw
I fully concur with my hon. Friend's comments about the Parliamentary Secretary. Will she join me in paying tribute also to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), who campaigned for those amendments to the Bill? The response from the Parliamentary Secretary was testimony to my hon. Friend's battle and to her work to bring together all manner of stakeholders to achieve that welcome change in the law.
§ Jacqui Smith
Certainly I commend, as the Parliamentary Secretary did on Thursday, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) and others for their work and their approach to this important issue. I also pay tribute to other hon. Members, on the Standing Committee and in the House, who have not always made my life easy but have worked very hard to ensure that the concerns of stakeholders are expressed and reflected in the Bill.
The free votes on amendments concerning unmarried couples showed that there was significant support for a change to current legislation. The amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), and supported by the House, help us in our aim to give more vulnerable children the chance of the permanent, secure and stable family life that adoption can provide. As I promised on Thursday, in the other place we will table the necessary amendments to the rest of the Bill to deal with any legal and technical implications of that change. The Bill now moves on for consideration by the other place. I am confident that it goes there in an improved state thanks to the work that we have done here.
The Government are determined to press on with our programme to restructure and improve adoption services. Unlike the 1976 Act, it will certainly not be more than 10 years before this Bill is implemented. Once it has gone through its remaining stages and received Royal Assent, we intend to bring its main provisions into force in 2004. However, as we have discussed today, it is important that some measures are introduced before that. The new framework for adoption support services and financial support will be brought into effect in 2003, as will the independent review mechanism in respect of adopter assessment.
The restrictions on bringing children into the UK should be brought into force as soon as possible, and they will be implemented in advance of the rest of the Bill. We therefore intend to bring these provisions into force in advance of the rest of the Bill. As part of the package of safeguards to be put in place for children, we intend in 2002 to amend section 58 of the 1976 Act to make it clear that the restrictions on advertising of adoption services cover electronic advertising.
Ensuring that the Bill is passed is, of course, only the first step. Once it receives Royal Assent, the real work to make changes on the ground will begin. We intend to 100 continue the consultative approach that we have taken throughout progress on the Bill. We will hold full public consultations on each set of regulations and consult widely on the detail of the rules to be made under the Bill.
In conclusion, I am pleased with how far we have come with the Bill, whose aim is to ensure that all children have the best start in life. I hope that the Bill that we now have as a result of our efforts provides the very best start that we can give and makes our contribution to that crucial change.
§ 8 pm
§ Tim Loughton
At last we have reached the relative calm of Third Reading. I am glad that we have sufficient time for all hon. Members who served on the Committee to contribute. I urge the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) to feel free to intervene on me; he will get a positive response.
It seems only yesterday that we started the Committee stage. The ability to hear witnesses was a good innovation, as the Minister said. More than 30 expert witnesses gave us their views, but the problem was that we did not have much time between listening to them and starting the Standing Committee procedure proper. There were 24 Standing Committee sittings, ending on 17 January, and there was an abortive start to the Report stage—all two hours of it—on 20 March.
Today and last Thursday we have seen a mê?eacute;?of 319 amendments—320 if one includes amendment No. 322, which crept back in for a repeat performance—and 16 new clauses. Many of those proposals have had to be agreed to when a guillotine has come down, as you will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker; you and your colleagues in the Chair have often sounded like up-market bingo callers as the knife comes down. All that came on top of the 270 amendments and 17 new clauses that were debated—again, the time was curtailed—in Committee.
We have covered everything from adoption support services to the implications of the sperm of Members of the House of Lords for adoption law, and from CAFCASS to terminology in respect of British colonies, or rather British overseas territories, as they should now be called. We have certainly had an extensive debate before waving this Bill off to the upper House, although I suspect that a welcoming party may greet its return to this House.
We have had an extensive debate, but I fear that it has been curtailed on too many occasions. I do not think that there was any need for a programme motion on the Bill, which had cross-party support. It was radical in terms of updating the 1976 legislation with the introduction of some very positive measures, many of which we agreed with. In Committee, the programme motion meant that 43 clauses were completely untouched by debate, seven clauses were unfinished and two whole schedules were not debated—measures that amounted to a third of the Bill.
As I said, much of that provision has not been debated on Report, either, which is a shame. On Thursday we failed to finish discussing 62 amendments on the operation of placement orders, eight amendments and new clause 5 on arrangements for adoption at birth, 11 amendments on contact, 17 amendments on special guardianship orders, 25 amendments and three new clauses on unmarried couples, on which many other hon. Members wanted to speak, and so on. Today we have 101 made slightly better progress, largely because the issues were less contentious. Even so, we have had to get through 63 amendments and four new clauses.
So much has been left unscrutinised. I am sure that interested parties outside the House will wonder why everything had to be crammed into Committee in two months only for us then to twiddle our thumbs for the subsequent four months and then cram 319 amendments and 17 new clauses into only two days and two hours—but alas, that is the way Parliament works.
I wish the Bill well in the upper House. It will continue to enjoy the Opposition's support, as it has done throughout its passage. As the Minister said, we have achieved an awful lot. The number of Government amendments tabled on Report shows that the Government have been willing to make many changes. To give them credit, they have responded to many of the concerns that we expressed in Committee, including those relating to the three-year limitation, which we discussed earlier, and to CAFCASS support services, and also the latest spectacular hit by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) in relation to the addresses of adopted children.
All those contributions were positive and I am grateful to the Minister for graciously attributing some of those proposals—if not all of them—to us. We had some very good debate and good Back-Bench engagement on both sides of the House, which is welcome. At least, that has been the case when Labour Members have not been trying to outdo each other on the subject of how many years they served as social workers before coming to this place; we have been up against exceedingly competitive Government Back Benchers. None the less, it has all been done in good humour, greatly enhanced by the Minister's flow charts—although I regret to say that those have failed to make a reappearance on Report.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, the fragrant hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton)—alas, she is not present for the finish of our proceedings—made very welcome offers to write to us, as she has done at length on many occasions in response to matters raised in Committee. The recent letters that we have received from both Ministers on speeding up adoption support services and on independent review mechanisms show that the Government have listened, which is to be welcomed.
We have also enjoyed the great expertise of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), even if he has yet to honour his offer of a bottle of wine in the contest for the best pronunciation of his constituency. Of course, this is his last opportunity not to welsh on that deal.
I also pay tribute to my colleagues. My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), speaking in his debut performance in Committee, made serious contributions made from a legal perspective, drawing on his background. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset has great experience in this field and scored more hits than other Opposition Members put together in getting his amendments accepted. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) brought his own characteristic and idiosyncratic—but most entertaining and informed—contribution to the debate. I pay particular tribute to the speaking Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), 102 who is more of an expert on adoption than most of us. We have all greatly benefited from his expertise and experience, and from his knowledge of many cases, reflecting just about every clause, all of which seem to have happened in his constituency; it all happens in Canterbury.
It is also fitting that we should pay tribute to the enormous amount of work done by the Minister's officials at the Department of Health, and to Tom Goldsmith, the Clerk to this Bill, who has given enormous help on the technical and tricky matters with which it deals. Of course, it would also be churlish of me not to say that the Liberals have also made the occasional appearance.
I have learned a lot about the subject of the Bill during the past few months. All of us have had experiences of constituents affected by adoption, and many of us have been greatly touched by them. We are also grateful for all the input from pressure groups, including the Adoption Forum and Liv O'Hanlon, the National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and Parents and Pam Hodgkins, who campaigned so hard on the retrospective nature of the legislation, the Children's Society and Julia Feast, the women's refuges, and the Catholic Children's Society and Jim Richards. All of them are mentioned in Hansard.
We have achieved an awful lot in the Bill, of which all of us can be proud. That is why we are very happy to support it, even if it came slightly late in the day. We should also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), who promoted her own private Member's Bill on adoption and kick-started the Government process that resulted at last in the introduction of the Bill before us.
The Bill is much more than parts of part 1 chapter 3, especially clause 47, and the question of who should be allowed to adopt. Most of us, on whatever side of argument, would agree that it is a great pity that the media have focused only on that aspect of the Bill, which has dominated all the headlines as if it were the only issue at stake in a Bill with 137 clauses and six schedules. I am sure that that subject will be revisited in another place, but I hope that the media and the world outside will take a more balanced view of the Bill and everything else that it contains.
There is wide agreement that clause 1(2) lies at the heart of the Bill. It states:The paramount consideration of the court or adoption agency must be the child's welfare, throughout his life.We have all have kept that very much at heart while we have been dealing with all the clauses and amendments, and quite rightly so. Principal to our consideration was the axiom that a father and a mother are best for a child, even if we have a debate about their marital status, and even if that situation is not always achievable.
The overriding consideration must be how we can help the 58,000 children who are looked after in care at the moment. That figure has risen alarmingly recently—by some 17 per cent. over the last few years. We must also consider the increasing complexity and complications involved, and the severe learning and behavioural requirements of some of those children. Only about 200 of the children adopted are babies.
There is currently an enormous amount of delay and bureaucracy in the system, and there are many shortcomings in the support available for damaged 103 children, for vulnerable families and their relatives, and for the willing adopters, of whom we need many more. We need to speed up the process, and to increase the number of volunteers from 3,000 to at least 5,000, perhaps 8,000, in the next few years.
We also need to ensure that adoptions work first time, and are good quality placements that will give the best prospects for a second chance to those damaged children. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford is right: this is not just about targets. It is about quality placements for individuals, every one of whom has a real life experience and a real life problem that needs to be addressed. They are not just numbers.
The Minister was right to say that the real work of the Bill will begin when it becomes law. This is not just a question of banning something or making something illegal, as are many other pieces of legislation. This is about starting an enormous process to set up new structures, and to ensure that those structures work so that the Bill can achieve what we all agree that it should achieve.
We have made great progress in certain areas. On clause 1, we may have arguments about welfare considerations being put above political correctness, but we all agree that we need to avoid delay. The adoption support services are an enormous benefit of the Bill, because the key to a good adoption is to provide support, understanding and information before, during and after adoption, continuing until the child reaches adulthood. That involves dealing with education, behavioural problems, housing and general health.
The principle of the Bill is absolutely right, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, because the principle will be worthless unless local authorities—which will have responsibility for many of these services—are properly resourced. I argue with the Government over the resourcing levels of social services, because there is still an enormous £n gap in social services departments' funding throughout the country, and the biggest increase in that shortfall has been in children's services. That is where social services are the most stretched, and where there is the biggest shortage of skilled professional children's workers.
We have expressed the fear before that local authorities often have to retrench to their statutory responsibilities simply because they do not have the resources and the manpower to go round. That is why we were so keen that so many of the provisions in the Bill should be a requirement rather than an optional extra that local authorities could opt out of even if they did not want to, because many of them are really stretched.
We have achieved a lot with regard to greater clarity in the legal process relating to placement and adoption orders. It is essential that all parties know what to expect of the system, what their rights and responsibilities are, and how they can reverse the process if they have a change of heart. The better independent review panel is also to be welcomed, although we still have concerns about how it will operate.
We shall not go back over the discussions about disclosure of information, but it was enormously welcome when, after the Christmas break, the Government had a change of heart on this issue. We had all found it a 104 complete mystery that they had sought to retreat from the provision in the Adoption Act 1976 concerning providing information to birth parents and to children trying to find their birth parents. We still think that these measures should be retrospective, particularly to give an older generation of women what will probably be their last chance to find the children whom they gave away for adoption, often under enormous pressure, back in the 1940s and 1950s in an adoption climate very different from the one that exists now. I know that the Minister addressed the amendments that we, and the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), tabled the other day, but this is still a serious problem.
We have improved the provisions for disclosure of information on many other fronts, particularly the disclosure of information before an adoption is effected. The Government responded to our concerns, not so much in the Bill but with regard to regulations, which will provide that as much information as possible should be made available to prospective adoptive parents before they make the decision to adopt, so that the right decision can be made.
There have been improvements to the provisions for the adopted children register, and the adoption contact register has been put on a statutory footing. There are still problems with inter-country adoptions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury mentioned earlier. That is a matter that will go on exercising our minds. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) and to the fact that there is a response in the Bill to issues of domestic violence, which we all wanted. There is still a long way to go on that, but this is a useful first step.
It is right to improve the provisions on offences relating to people running adoption services without being properly authorised, or bringing children into the country without the right to do so, in very unpleasant circumstances. The innovation of special guardianship orders is another positive aspect of the Bill which we did not get to debate at length, but which, by and large, has widespread support.
In conclusion, we have achieved an awful lot. It is increasingly important that this legislation should go through swiftly and be put into effect properly and practically. A short time ago, the horrific case of Victoria Climbie, and the case of John Smith in my constituency a couple of years ago, brought home to us just how many gaps there are in child support services, and how there are still too many vulnerable people out there whom the system has failed. Such horrendous failures must not be allowed to happen again.
There is much good in the Bill. It is good that the Government have listened in many cases. It would be even better if they listened a little more to the questions that will arise in the upper House. I shall finish, as the Minister did, by saying that the Bill is intended to reach, and to a great degree succeeds in reaching, the target of giving all children, particularly those who have had a damaged beginning in difficult circumstances, the best start in life.
§ Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley)
I particularly welcome the Bill, and it has been a pleasure to be involved with it during my first year in Parliament. Sometimes it is hard to believe that, only 18 months ago,
105 I was in the position of making exactly the kind of decisions dealt with in the Bill. They were some of the most important and difficult decisions that I made during my social work career.
I have always been a strong advocate for adoption. It is not the answer for all children, but it is a positive option for very many. I was in social work for a long time—I shall spare the House the details of the length of time, because this is not a game about who has been in social work the longest—and I also know that many children experience problems, particularly in their teenage years. It is important for us not only to provide support for those children and their families, but to do so in a way that does not stigmatise. The Bill does a lot to put in place adoption services that will be there for children and their families and will take away the stigma and the concern that so many families experience that asking for help may mean admitting failure or the risk of a child feeling insecure, or that they might again end up in care.
Some of those services are particularly important at this stage, because many of the children looking for placements today have enormous psychological and emotional difficulties, and if support can be provided to them and their families, there is a much better chance that they will find appropriate adoptive placements.
It was a particular pleasure in Committee to hear Members of all parties arguing for more resources for social services—of which I have of course been a supporter for many years. Unlike some Opposition Members, however, I would say that the Government have done a great deal for social services. The extra money that has been put in over the past few years has been extremely welcome.
It is a great pity that, on Report, some Opposition Members used throw-away lines about "politically correct" social workers, as if that were the norm. I hope that I and my fellow ex-social worker colleagues on the Labour Benches have demonstrated that we, too, can be conservative—albeit with a small C—and pragmatic, but that above all we have the interests of children at heart. In bringing adoption into line with the Children Act 1989 and making the needs of the child paramount, the Bill is extremely welcome.
Like everything else, social work practice moves on, and our understanding of adoption will increase. I hope that the Bill will provide a positive basis for the development of adoption practice which will benefit all those involved in the adoption triangle. More importantly, I hope that the publicity that has surrounded this Bill—I share the concerns of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) about the fact that only certain aspects have been publicised—will encourage more people to come forward as adopters.
It is right to say that there are very few babies available, but many older children need homes. I for one will never forget the teenager who argued on television last year that she should be given the chance to become part of a family. After all, real families are for life, not just for the duration of childhood. I sincerely hope that all children who need to be adopted will have that opportunity. I believe that this Bill should help that process.
§ Sandra Gidley
This has been a long haul. There is much good about this Bill, but we seem to have been a long time getting to this stage. For some of us, the process 106 started way before last year's election, when evidence gathering on the previous adoption Bill was destined to continue for many more sittings than just three, had the election not intervened. The Bill presented at the beginning of this Session was much improved on the one on which we had worked. I am pleased to say that the Bill now going to the House of Lords is an even greater improvement.
The spirit of co-operation and obvious dedication and commitment of most Members who served on the Committee has been heartening. By commitment, I do not mean commitment to a political party or a political ideology, but commitment to the Bill and to trying to get it right for the children who need such services.
I particularly appreciate the fact that the Bill has benefited from the Special Standing Committee process. What struck me powerfully during the evidence-gathering sittings was the huge consensus among a wide variety of agencies. It has been refreshing in some ways not to have had to balance the arguments of a wide range of vested interests. For the most part, people have spoken with one voice. That is simply because they are thinking of the child first. Hopefully, that feeling is shared among Members of all parties.
The Bill was also a welcome departure from what I understood to be the accepted practice of not selecting Members to scrutinise a Bill if they knew anything about the subject. As I said in Committee, Gyles Brandreth described in his diaries how he said to the Whips that he wanted to serve on a Bill concerning entertainment because he knew a lot about the subject, so they put him on a transport Bill. I have therefore been delighted that, to help us on our way, there have been several social workers—politically correct or otherwise—who have been able on occasions to say, "Get real; life's not like that," and to tell things how they are. They often couched that sentiment in different terms. I sincerely hope that we have got this Bill right, because if we have not, we will probably have to wait another 25 years for an opportunity to do so.
One problem, which has been highlighted, is that in some ways we have before us only the bones of the legislation. The flesh is yet to come, in regulations. That has presented some difficulties, as we have had to take a lot on trust, which is not always easy for an Opposition party. The fact that the regulations have not been available for scrutiny is a matter of regret. I therefore hope that, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has said, we shall have time to study the regulations and comment on them, and will not end up with rushed legislation.
I also want to comment on the timetabling. I am generally in favour of timetabling, but the Government must admit that they got it wrong with this Bill. Much of interest was not discussed fully in Committee owing to lack of time. In addition, we did not get the chance to get round to many issues of great interest that were timetabled for Report on Thursday. That was partly because proceedings on Report were dominated by one issue. That is regrettable, because it diluted the Bill's wider message. Hopefully, we will learn lessons and not chop and change things at the last minute just because they look as though they will fit in more conveniently as a result. I am pleased that on the whole the Government have listened and adapted to our concerns. There has been a lot of consultation and information from various Ministers, 107 for which I thank them. It has been helpful to know that concerns have been taken on board and are being addressed.
It remains for me to wish the Government well with this Bill, for which there is support on both sides of the House. We hope that we will be consulted further, but the most important thing is that support is provided. Some of us have been banging on about this subject for some time. The fact remains that three years' funding was announced and allocated to adoption services in December 2000, but by the time that the Bill reaches the statute book, that funding will have disappeared. It would be good to have some commitment here and now that that funding will continue. Again, we must take such issues on trust.
None the less, at this stage, I hope that I am not being foolish and that I am proved right in trusting that the Government will provide the money. Money has gone into social services but has been aimed very much at services for older people, at the expense of children's services. That should not be allowed to continue. I wish the Bill well.
§ Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)
I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate. My first comments are most definitely that the Bill has been brilliantly piloted through the House by the Minister, and that it is long, long overdue.
The Bill has many qualities, foremost among which is that it places the child's needs at the centre of all processes. Importantly, in so doing, it places centre stage the needs of often very vulnerable children. This is indeed a very important Bill. For me, the interpretation of such needs ultimately means the achievement—hopefully after a short time—of placing all children in loving, stable homes. That is the aim of the Bill. I say that knowing that there are thousands of children longing and hoping to hear that they will be placed with an adoptive family and become a member of it. The fact that there are thousands of such children explains the urgency behind the Bill.
Alongside the needs of the child, an important characteristic of the Bill is its provision on care plans, which are to be followed and adopted by local authorities or voluntary agencies. Such plans will not only encapsulate a time frame but allow young people to comment on and direct the way in which the plan should be established. When that plan is not put in place within the time frame, a robust review by an independent body is available. For me, that is crucial.
I worked in care as a young woman, and I was overwhelmed by the number of children who seemed lost to the care system until they were 16, when, frankly, they were turned out with little support—if any. I hope and believe that the independent scrutiny will be robust and tough and that it will ensure that the best for the child is always achieved. Throughout our consideration, we have said again and again that the needs of the child are at the forefront. Those needs have been carefully determined and outlined, and we must achieve them.
One of the most important areas of the Bill—the debate about who wants to adopt and those who it is felt should have that privilege—hit the headlines in a way that most of us felt it should not have. It is a privilege to bring up 108 a child and a privilege to be given the opportunity to bring up another person's child. Inevitably, there was a lot of tension around that issue, and perhaps it was always going to be the most difficult question for many people involved in considering the Bill.
For me, the introduction of new clause 13 helped to resolve that issue. It ably, knowledgeably and compassionately defined how we, as a group of people in this Chamber, should think about others who are, or who want to be, in the process of adopting a child. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), who introduced the new clause in a way that defined the real situation in which we all live in today's society. It extends legal rights to couples who seriously want to be involved in the adoption process—not one person, but all persons who want to bring up a child.
My hon. Friend acknowledged in the House a point that I have made time and again, as a Christian and a happily married female who has had the privilege of adopting: marriage and heterosexuality can offer the most loving and permanent home. I believe that mine has done so, but I make no prejudiced statement. I also believe that if social services and other bodies conclude, following a thorough investigation, that equally long-term non-marriage relationships between heterosexuals or homosexuals can also offer a permanent and loving home, those people should not be excluded from the right to enjoy the privilege of bringing up an adopted child.
§ Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)
I am following the hon. Lady's argument and, as a parent of adopted children, I concur with her views. Does she agree that what has to be evaluated is not one kind of partnership against another, but all those partnerships against living in a children's home? The choice is easy to make.
§ Ms Taylor
I could not agree with the hon. Gentleman more. I have seen children waiting at the door on a Saturday when visitors are coming, hoping and praying that mum, an auntie or someone will visit, and I could not prise them from that door. That is what makes me say that the hon. Gentleman is so right. Children want someone who thinks that they are special—No. 1 in their lives.
I am conscious that time is against me and that lots of Members want to speak, but let me say that there is much in the Bill that I want to praise—independent scrutiny, counselling support, a 40 per cent. increase in adoptions and inter-country adoptions involving the best for the child. All those are important qualities.
With two colleagues in the House, I have had the joy of being co-chair of the all-party adoption group. It has been a privilege to work with the many voluntary organisations that are part of the group. They have given us excellent advice and their considerable experience has been invaluable. It is worth recording all that Liv O'Hanlon and many others have given, including a perspective that is so important. They, like us, want one thing: an effective Bill that ensures a stable, loving family home for the thousands of children who long to be part of a family.
Owing to my personal experience, my enthusiasm and my emotional sense, my commitment to the Bill is absolute. I have had the privilege of adopting a beautiful daughter. As I have told the House once before, social 109 services turned us down—we were too old and not good enough. That nearly destroyed my life, so I am very pleased that we have provided for independent scrutiny. Without my daughter, my husband and I would not have had the family that we desperately wanted.
I support the Bill completely and I am delighted with its content. I congratulate Members on both sides of the House on their involvement, especially my hon. Friend the Minister, who has ably piloted the Bill to Third Reading.
§ Mr. Llwyd
I recall saying on Second Reading that the Bill had the potential to be a landmark Bill, and I still believe that. I value the excellent Special Standing Committee procedure, which I found very interesting. We spoke with knowledgeable people, so we did not have to rely on the green ink brigade and a huge number of letters—some, although not all, of which were perhaps uninformed.
Clause 1 says that the interests of children are paramount throughout their lives, and that is absolutely right. Members have said that the timetable provisions bring the Bill into line with the Children Act 1989; I remember being in practice when it was introduced. The Children Act revolutionised child law and I hope that the Bill does the same through the ambitious target of increasing adoptions by 40 per cent.
We have, of course, widened the pool of potential adopters, and much has been said about that over the past few days, but it is important that there is no ban on potential adopters. If people are fit to adopt, so be it. The only ban should be on those who are unfit to adopt. I echo the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor): it is indeed a privilege to bring up children and whether they are our own, adopted or someone else's does not matter. Adoption is a great privilege, and with that privilege come serious obligations.
I am extremely pleased with the way in which the Bill has been amended. When Ministers say in Standing Committee, "We'll get back to you," or, "We'll write to you," one sometimes has to take it with a pinch of salt. Refreshingly, the Minister and her colleague sent those letters, and I pay tribute to her for that. Changes have been made and further serious consideration has been given to the arguments put. More than that, one cannot really expect.
I welcome the provision of special guardianship orders as a helpful tool in the armoury. Care plans and the independent review are also most welcome.
I add my voice to that of hon. Members who congratulated the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) on her crusade concerning contact by people who have been involved in domestic violence. She has worked very hard and the fruits of her labours were obvious in the amendments that came forth last week.
On inter-country adoption problems remain, but the Bill is a good, positive step forward. The appeal procedure for those who have been turned down for whatever reason is right and proper.
I must, however, sound a note of caution as regards CAFCASS. We know that CAFCASS will play an all-important—indeed pivotal—role. I would go as far as to say that it must succeed if the Bill is to succeed. Over 110 the past few months, I have spoken to many practitioners, including senior judges, who are worried that the additional work load on CAFCASS will create problems if it is not followed by additional resources. We all know what the old children's guardians ad litem are there for. I know, as a practitioner, that the quality, independence and experience of guardians is extremely important. I have no reason to say that such people will not be as good in future as they have always been, but I urge the Government to ensure that the resources are there to enable sufficient numbers of them to do the job so that they do not have to rush to produce reports without doing the work properly—otherwise we will fail those whom we seek to serve.
I shall now draw my remarks to a conclusion.
§ Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)
Before the hon. Gentleman does so, I pay tribute to him, as a fellow Welsh Member, for his contribution to the Bill—something that we do not often do across the Floor of the House. Will the hon. Gentleman now defend the honour of our nation by announcing who has won the prize that he promised in Committee for the best pronunciation of the name of his constituency? Can he confirm that he has a reputation for being knowledgeable not only about adoption, but about wine, and that whoever has won can expect a significantly expensive and very good vintage bottle of wine?
§ Mr. Llwyd
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman's antennae have been working overtime, but he was in the frame for the bottle of wine, and he has been sufficiently gushing this evening to qualify for it. I shall ensure that he has it before the end of the week—inevitably without the cork, but we shall not go into that now.
Mr. Justice Wall, a very experienced family judge in the High Court, recently said:
I find it disappointing that one constantly hears rhetoric that children are at the top of various agendas but when it comes to the nitty-gritty of a judge saying to Cafcass 'I want this child represented and/or an urgent report', one"—is told that it has not got the resources. That is a warning sign that we should consider. CAFCASS is vital in the process. I am sure that it will be possible to provide the necessary wherewithal for it to do its work, and I am sorry to end on a sour note, but I urge the Government to ensure that it has all the resources ready at its disposal. CAFCASS had a rather inglorious birth, but I am sure that the genuine people who work for it will unite with one voice to say, "Give us what we need to do the work."
With those few caveats, I am very pleased with the way in which the Bill has been amended. It will prove to be a landmark Bill, and I am pleased to have played a small part in the deliberations.
§ Mr. Dawson
It is a pleasure to take part in this stage of our consideration of a very good Bill. I join all hon. Members in speaking warmly of the good and positive relationships across the Floor of the House. I welcome the positive contributions that Members have made, from whatever background they come, and the care with which they have addressed the crucial issues. 111 I, too, pay tribute to the voluntary and statutory organisations that helped us during the Special Standing Committee stage and continue to do so. I strongly support the Bill and the Government's aim of increasing the number of adoptions from care by 40 per cent. It is a good, if relatively modest, aim, with which the Bill will greatly assist.
I want to consider the way in which hon. Members have dealt with the measure. I am disturbed that people's enthusiasm for adoption can lead them to denigrate residential and foster care—that has happened in the past hour or so—yet residential and foster care are important elements of the care system that can lead to good outcomes for children. I am worried that some of the first-class people who work in residential and foster care and in social work will read some of the contributions that seemed to place adoption on a pedestal. It is a good option for children, but it is no panacea and it is not the only choice; extended care in the child's family is another important option.
As the Bill progresses, further discussions will be held behind the scenes. I hope and trust that they will refer to the contribution that family group conferencing can make to decisions about where children and young people live. Families often have tremendous resources, which they can bring to bear on problems if they have the opportunity to do so.
I want to comment on children and young people in care. Again, it is important that, in our enthusiasm to stress our anxiety about those who have been grossly neglected or abused, we do not overlook young people's potential, quality, resilience, courage, strength and intelligence. Every third Wednesday, the all-party group on children and young people in care meets; children and young people from care or those who have left care usually outnumber parliamentarians. I recommend attending a meeting to hon. Members who have shown an interest in the care system during the Bill's passage. Those young people know more about the care system than we will ever know, whatever our social work backgrounds. They have great qualities. After listening and talking to them, hon. Members are more confident and optimistic about children and young people in care.
We usually emphasise the negative side of care. That changes on meeting some of the young people who have been to university and are studying for PhDs, and the young person who, after being corporately parented by his local authority, became a member of that local authority at 21, two weeks ago. That is something to conjure with.
This is a good Bill. It addresses the fundamental aim of increasing options for care by improving the support available to those involved in adoption; by ensuring the availability of information about children who need to be adopted; and by clearing away work which is important in itself but which gets in the way of a lot of the adoption work of family placement teams. Step-parents being able to acquire parental responsibility for their step-children much more easily will be a boon to many teams, which will be freed to do their work by the establishment of the new status of special guardianship.
Above all, it has been a good Bill because of the way in which Ministers—the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch 112 (Jacqui Smith), and the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton)—and their team of civil servants have responded so positively to the issues of concern. We have seen that today, too, in the way in which they have responded over issues relating to section 17, to advocacy for children and young people and to the role and status of parents in legal proceedings.
There is still a way to go. I regret that a process that has been largely positive has not given us enough time to debate important issues about parental responsibility, consent, placement orders and contact. The Bill brings adoption together with the Children Act. I regard the Children Act as great, balanced, profound legislation that goes to the heart of important issues affecting children. More work needs to be done on bringing the Bill in line with that Act. I am concerned that, in getting rid of issues such as freeing children for adoption, we may have created a category of children subject to placement orders who are not looked after, who are not accommodated or who are not on care orders. There is more work to be done on that.
I am disappointed that in the course of this Bill we did not deal with the vexed question of private fostering, which remains for another day. I am confident that the Government will get to grips with it. The biggest issue of all in making sure that the Bill works follows on from what the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) said—the number, status, pay and standing of the social work profession within CAFCASS, local authorities and voluntary organisations. We must get that right.
We have a very long way to go, but this is a good Bill. It sets us on a good track and I wish it well.
§ Jonathan Shaw
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). In fact, it is tremendous to follow my hon. Friend, who made a fundamentally tremendous speech about children in care, about whom he speaks so passionately. Perhaps he should get a prize, another bottle of wine from the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), for the number times he mentions "tremendous" and "fundamental".
The Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), stands tall because she has delivered this Bill. We have had White Papers and various attempts by Governments of both parties to deliver an improvement on the Adoption Act 1976. She can be proud.
My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that she was surrounded by social workers during the Bill's consideration—a fact that may not always have curried favour. Perhaps she should be an honorary social worker. The brown corduroys are in the post, but we do not expect her to grow a beard or to drive a 2CV.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) invited me to intervene on his closing statement, but I did not do so because it was a fine speech that encapsulated his response throughout our deliberations—apart from last Thursday, when he let himself down. In talking about political correctness, he demonstrated the right-wing version of it to which I referred in Committee. That apart, he has made a good 113 contribution, and has introduced proposals that my hon. Friend the Minister accepted. Such consensus has been the Bill's hallmark, and it has made for a better measure. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton).
Such was the atmosphere created by the presence of so many former social workers in Committee that the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) felt the need to share some of his pain with us. According to Hansard, which I was able to consult during our proceedings, he said that he had suffered as a statistician, and I responded that we had all done so.
§ Jonathan Shaw
Indeed. I was in the Corridor with the hon. Gentleman—we are both Members for Kent constituencies—discussing certain parts of the Bill. I was quite annoyed, but I got even angrier when he kindly told me to calm down. He has also made a contribution, and no one can deny the genuineness of his belief in adoption as a means to provide a better future for children. He has consistently spoken on that issue, and although we hold differing views on several matters, I take my hat off to him: he has shown commitment throughout. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear.] The same can also be said of other hon. Members.
This has not been a unique experience, however. After my former job as a social worker, I, like other hon. Members, arrived in this place hoping to bring about change. I have been privileged to play a part not only in the Adoption and Children Bill, but in the Care Standards Bill and the Children (Leaving Care) Bill. All three Bills sought to bring about change for some of the most vulnerable children in our communities by making their lives better. Given my background, to have been involved at the coal face of such legislation has been an immense privilege.
The Bill will provide greater opportunity for children and young people to be adopted. My hon. Friend the Minister deserves praise, but we should also acknowledge the many agencies outside the House that have helped us all. I pay particular tribute to Felicity Collier and Deborah Cullen, of British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, who campaigned and lobbied hard for the Bill before it came before the House. The Bill is testament to their hard work, but most of all to the children who want adoptive placements. That is what our proceedings on Second Reading and in Committee have been about, and the consensus that we have found bodes well for the future of adoption.
§ Liz Blackman (Erewash)
I regarded myself as a junior member of the Special Standing Committee—I have no background in social work, social services or adoption—but I learned a great deal from my colleagues who are former social workers. I should point out that most of them are not politically correct, but they are very knowledgable. I also learned a great deal from my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), and from the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), thanks to the evidence that he brought before the Committee.
The whole process was fine and outstanding. I know that we had two bites of the cherry initially, with two Second Readings and two lots of evidence, but that was 114 valuable because it helped to refine what is now a fine piece of legislation. We were given first-rate evidence by all the groups and individuals who appeared before us. I have sat on other Committees that have taken evidence, but the quality was not as outstanding, crisp and meaningful. That was a great privilege.
As I have said before, I did not have a background in adoption practice, but a couple came to see me because they could not obtain information on a child whom they were considering adopting. They were blocked at every step of the way by the local authority. In the end, out of sheer frustration and upset, they backed off. I have pressed to put rigorous provision in the Bill that will make local authorities provide detailed information to prospective adoptive parents. The children can be difficult, and parents need to know as much about them as possible to know whether they can give them a stable, loving home. Throughout the process, my point was listened to and the Minister has said that it will be addressed in regulations. Indeed, all the hon. Members involved have beavered away and chivvied the Minister, and she has been so receptive that we have made progress. I praise her for that.
One of the groups that gave evidence to the Special Standing Committee was the Nottingham Catholic Children's Society. I live in Nottingham, so I took up the society's invitation to visit. Staff took me through the practical measures that they take in the lead up to an adoption and described the post-adoption support they provide. They are responsible for some very fine practice. As several other hon. Members have said, we must ensure that the legislation is put into practice on the ground. We must implement it with the best possible practice, network it and ensure that it happens. The finest piece of paper in the world does not mean much to children who want to be adopted if the procedures are not working.
The Bill is excellent and it was a privilege to serve on the Committee. We must get this right for all those children who are in care and who want to be adopted.
§ 9.2 pm
§ Mr. Bellingham
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman). Like her, I learned much from the progress of the Bill. I declare an interest, because I am the father of an adopted child. I declared that in Committee, and I declare it now, because that is the right thing to do. Having been through the experience of adopting, I know quite a lot about it, but I have learned much more from Labour Members and their experience of social work. It was a fulfilling Committee on which to serve.
The Bill is long overdue and I hope that it will be implemented as soon as possible. The Minister touched on that subject earlier on Report, but I hope that final implementation will be brought forward even further.
As the Minister pointed out, the Bill's overriding priority must be the interests of children. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned permanency, security and stability, which are critical. It is crucial that the interests of the child are put first. A moving article in today's Evening Standard tells the story of a man called Paul 115 James, who pursued a council for its failure to have him adopted. The council had to give him his notes, which stretched back over many years. Paul James is quoted as saying:I wanted to know why I was a loner, why everyone else seemed to have a loving family and I didn't.
Anyone who gets the chance should read that article, because it sums up what the Bill is about. It is about the lives of people such as Paul James. It is also very much in the country's interests, because children brought up in a secure and stable family are much more likely to fulfil their own potential and then go on to contribute more to the country.
I thought that Thursday's debate was all too short. As an adopter myself, I feel that adopters make a lifelong commitment to the children they adopt. Indeed, they probably make even more of a commitment to someone else's child than they would to their own. That is why I felt it was equally important for the person concerned to make a lifelong commitment to the partner with whom they are adopting a child. Obviously the debate will go on and on—it will continue in another place—but of course I accept the result of Thursday's votes, and indeed the results of any votes tonight.
I understand the concern felt by many Members about inter-country adoption. In Committee, I tabled an amendment to allow private social workers to compile projects such as private home studies under licence to local authorities. There are many private social workers out there, most of whom are former public sector social workers. We must try to harness that resource. Unfortunately my amendment was not accepted, despite being supported by Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats, but I hope that it will be resurrected in another place and given serious consideration.
Local authorities are already stretched, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham pointed out, many are retrenching towards statutory responsibilities. The one thing they do not want to take on now is inter-country adoption. I have spoken to a number of social workers, who made their point very clearly. Many of them cannot join voluntary agencies, but a sensible solution might be to contract them to local authorities and introduce a licensing system.
I hope that the other place will also return to another amendment tabled in Committee, which would enable adopted children to inherit titles. There was a certain amount of sneering from Labour Members in Committee, but the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department did not sneer, because it was important. Adopted children are allowed to inherit everything else. They are on a par with other children, with the exception of inheriting titles. It would surely be appropriate for the amendment to be considered again in another place. As I said in Committee, 15 peers and 15 baronets have adopted children. It seems absurd that those children can inherit a home or, for instance, a picture, but cannot inherit a title—especially at a time when the Government are so keen to remove all hereditary peers from the other place.
It is a pity that the Bill has been subject to so much timetabling. As the last three days have shown, there is great interest in it, and we have engaged in a series of constructive, worthwhile debates during that time; but in 116 Committee the axe descended on swathes of it, and those debates fell by the wayside. That does not reflect well on the House. While I agree with all who have described the Committee stage as excellent and fulfilling for all who participated, the curtailment of so much debate was extremely frustrating. I am sure that, in their heart of hearts, Labour Members agree. When a Bill is not particularly controversial and has attracted all-party agreement, why timetable it? In fact, we might even have made quicker progress in Committee if the Bill had not been timetabled. We would have had less of an artificial framework in which to pursue the debate, which would have meant quicker progress in some areas. We could have focused the debate on areas that we have not been allowed to debate at all.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham in the tribute that he paid to Tom Goldsmith, who was quite superb. The Opposition team went to him with a number of amendments. Some of mine were certainly not as expertly drafted as they might have been. I went to see Tom Goldsmith, who provided a great deal of patient help, assistance and understanding.
I also pay tribute to the Minister's civil servants. I appreciated the letters that both Ministers sent us—I raised a number of quite technical, legal points in Committee, but both Ministers always replied; they were extremely conscientious. I also thank the Minister of State, Department of Health for the lengthy letter that she sent on 10 May—it was about 10 pages long. That sums up the attitude of the civil servants who worked on the Bill. They worked tirelessly, they were extremely professional and they served all members of the Committee equally. Finally, I wish the Bill well as it goes to another place.
§ Kevin Brennan
I should like to add my praise to everyone associated with the Bill. I should feel a fraud if I accepted the bottle of wine offered by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nam Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). As a fellow countryman, I disqualified myself from the competition. If it does come my way, I will pass it on to one of my colleagues from the other side of Offa's dyke. I feel that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) would be wrong to accept it, as she was born in Ynyshir in the Rhondda and is a fluent Welsh speaker.
This is the first Bill with which I have been associated and taken through its stages. I was honoured to be associated with the Special Standing Committee procedure, which was very welcome. Now that I am serving on the Committee stages of two other Bills, I know that, as I suspected, it is not common practice for us to legislate on the basis of evidence. It is a process that we should use more often.
I have sometimes felt like an impostor. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), I am not a social worker, and it has occasionally been lonely admitting to that on the Labour Benches. However, I have been tremendously impressed by contributions from all right hon. and hon. Members, particularly from those who have an enormous amount of experience, commitment and passion. As a relatively new Member, I suspect that however long I remain in the House, I will not very often see the kind of expertise or quality of evidence and debate that have been apparent during the proceedings on this Bill.
117 There have been one or two lighter moments in our proceedings. One or two hon. Friends have suggested that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) looks a bit like Mr. Burns from "The Simpsons". That is an unfair comparison, because I know that, unlike Mr. Burns, the hon. Gentleman is a very nice man. One of our more interesting debates came about when he moved his amendment to allow adopted children to inherit titles. It was extremely brave of him to come out as a republican on that occasion and threaten the line and the hereditary principle of the monarchy. I compliment him on his bravery.
§ Kevin Brennan
I very much enjoyed all the contributions of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, particularly his most recent one. He showed tremendous courage in talking about the hereditary principle, peers and the guillotine in the same speech. I compliment him on being a true radical.
I also thank the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), for piloting the Bill so well, with the able assistance of the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton). My hon. Friend the Minister for State has shown great sticking power, as well as tolerance of Labour and Opposition Members. The Bill has been improved due to her receptive attitude to suggestions.
I am disappointed that the question of access to information for birth relatives remains unresolved. If a free vote had been allowed on that matter—as it was on another matter last week—perhaps the result would have been different. That is not meant as a criticism—hon. Members are entitled to their views. I am sorry that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) pressed the matter to a Division. He was perfectly entitled to do so, but I had hoped that we should not need to establish a view in this place before the Bill went to another place. However, that has been done and I am sure that the matter will be further discussed in another place. Indeed, I hope that we can find ways to discuss it further.
I welcome the Minister's announcement last week of a national focal point for intermediary services. I hope that organisations such as the National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and Parents will be considered for that role, and that the funding that my hon. Friend pledged last week will be sufficient to make the role meaningful so that there will be genuine help to solve the problem.
I read the Committee reports for the legislation introduced in the 1970s, especially the sections on access to information. Access was granted retrospectively so that people could find out about their origins. Some of the attitudes towards access to information at that time are still reflected 25 years later, so I hope that further progress can be made on that point elsewhere. None the less, the Bill is excellent and I wish it well during the remainder of its passage through Parliament.
§ Mr. Andrew Turner
I feel like an intruder among Members who have seen the Bill through all its stages in this place, so my contribution will be modest—as were 118 my contributions at earlier points in the progress of the measure. As hon. Members have already observed, it is unusual for us to legislate on the basis of expertise and evidence, and I note that both are available on the Labour and the Opposition Benches.
Third Reading is the time to congratulate those who have successfully taken the Bill through the House, and I congratulate Members who served on the Committee on taking evidence as they did and on bringing the Bill to Report in such good shape. It has, of course, been improved on Report.
I am especially grateful that care plans will be put on a statutory basis and that there will be an opportunity to review their implementation. I am glad that there will be seamless local authority support for adoption. I represent an authority where no one, as a matter of policy, is adopted within the authority of their origin, so I know it is especially important that the Government produce—as I am sure that they will—regulations to make that transition seamless. I thank them for that.
The interests of the child are paramount and I perfectly understand why the interests of children going through the adoption process are so important to Members on both sides of the House. However, I hope that in another place the interests of those who are equally affected by the adoption process will be given a little more thought.
This is a good Bill and I and my hon. Friends welcome it. I congratulate the Minister of State on bringing it to Report.
§ Mr. Brazier
I am delighted to have served on the Bill, which the Opposition have welcomed throughout. There is no time to reiterate at length the Bill's merits, on which we have dwelled during most of the last two and bit days on Report, but I should like to congratulate Ministers, especially the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), on announcing so many concessions today, many of which, as she generously said, had their origins on this side of the House. She has engaged in lively discussion in Committee and throughout the consideration of the Bill.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on carrying the burden single-handedly, often at the same time as serving on a Committee that was considering another Bill. He has brought considerable energy and intelligence to a very difficult and complicated subject.
I congratulate three Conservative Back-Bench Members: my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), who has just made such an interesting speech, bringing out, once again, the very strong commitment that he has to the issue because of his personal position; my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), who was with us earlier this evening and is the former chairman of a social services committee; and my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), who has also been so energetic.
The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd)—I never thought I had a chance of winning that bottle of wine—brought real expertise to the Committee. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Minister will take on board the very strong plea that he has made, based on his experience as a family lawyer, about CAFCASS, without which much of the Bill cannot succeed.
119 I congratulate a number of Labour Members on making lively contributions throughout the consideration of the Bill. In most cases, their contributions have been based on tremendous personal experience of social services. In particular, I should mention the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), with whom I have been debating this subject, on and off, for almost five years now.
Although he mentioned some anecdotes, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) did not comment, in pulling my leg on a variety of subjects, on my visit to the barber, when I had to suggest that he was perhaps short of materials for the makeover that I was seeking. Perhaps he was thinking of glass houses and all that. He has also made a great contribution. He has mentioned my being a statistician, for my sins. A couple of days ago a single table crossed my path that brought home to me, just like that, what the Bill is all about. It was a horrifying table showing the number of moves among the 25,000 children who left care in 2000. Just over a fifth of them had been moved five or more times in the previous 12 months. Some 16,000 of them had been moved more than 10 times in that time. What sorts of lives do those children have? That is why adoption is so vital.
A girl from care visited me for a day's work experience, organised through one of the campaigning groups with which the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre is involved. Very sadly, at the end of the day, she said, "Yes, I would have loved to have a family of my own, but my mum objected to it." I asked when she had last seen her mother, and the answer was when she was aged five. That is what this is all about.
The national register has been put on a statutory basis, and independent review is important. The targets for delay, which had already been announced, will now be backed up by changes in court procedure, but please think, "CAFCASS, CAFCASS, CAFCASS"—we have got to get it right. There is some extra money, but we shall see whether it is enough. Adoption support services have been changed. All those are achievements.
I should like to spend the last two or three minutes of my speech focusing, without sounding sour, on two points that have not been considered so far, both of which are very important, and I hope that they will be considered in another place. The first relates to contact.
Several hon. Members made the point that we are introducing new safeguards on contact. However, the group led by amendment No. 182 could cause problems. That amendment states:the court may make an order under this section requiring the person with whom the child lives, or is to live, to allow the child to visit or stay with the person named in the order, or for the person named in the order and the child otherwise to have contact with each other.There is a serious danger that the amendments on birth families, which were tabled at the last moment and not debated, will restore the contact that in many cases it is so important to cease. There is not time for me to dwell on the many harrowing examples of that, although I mentioned a case in my constituency in which fresh contact with birth parents destroyed the adoptive relationship. I hope that those amendments are considered in another place.
120 My second concern relates to placement orders. Many of us welcome the move from freeing orders to placement orders. Although time prevents me from going into the matter in depth, some of the better informed pressure groups—I refer in particular to Sue James of the Adoption Forum and her briefing—are worried that placement orders are in danger of becoming freeing orders by another name. I see the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre nodding. The problem is that the orders do not necessarily involve placements. Although the amendments legislate for placements, the orders are not tied to them. That is why we hope that the amendments that were not reached here will be tabled in another place so that we can at least bring the matter back to court if the situation is drifting.
I do not want to end on those two sour notes, however. I know that another place will have a chance to consider the amendments that we did not debate. I end, therefore, where I started. The Bill is excellent. I am proud to have served on the Committee and I very much enjoyed working with the Committee on it. We commend the Bill to the House.
§ Jacqui Smith
This debate has been conducted with the same good temper and in the same constructive way that all the Bill's stages have been considered.
In my introduction, I spelled out the important ways in which the Bill has changed. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) referred to those changes. I must emphasise the attempt that we have made to listen to the experts who have been involved in the process, many of whom were mentioned by hon*. Members. We have also tabled amendments to ensure that we not only have a consultative process, but act on it.
However, making changes as we go along brings considerable pressure to bear on the officials responsible for supporting Ministers. I certainly want to add my voice to the comments made by several hon. Members who thanked my officials for their work. They have put in long hours and sterling work, for which they deserve our congratulations, whether they are in the Lord Chancellor's Department or the Department of Health. I also want to commend the way in which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham led the Opposition, ably assisted by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier).
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) once again used her experience of social work to inform her contribution. I share her view that we should not be quick to criticise social workers because they improve children's lives every day across the country. We should recognise that crucial work.
The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) rightly emphasised the need for support and resources. I assure her that the Government will continue to invest in social services to an even greater extent than we have done since 1997.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) brought her considerable experience to the debate, both personal and as a result of her work with the all-party group on adoption. It is worth while putting on the record our support for the work done by all the stakeholder groups involved and by the excellent all-party group, before which I appeared at least twice, and it was a stimulating experience.
121 The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) referred once again to his legal expertise, which has been useful during consideration of the Bill. He emphasised the need to do all that we can to widen the pool of adopters and the important role of CAFCASS. Had it not been for the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), there would have been a bitter turn to this evening's events, with allegations being made of a Welsh stitch-up when it came to the bottle of wine. I am still not completely sure that everything is above board, but at least my hon. Friend has agreed to give away his bottle of wine.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) emphasised the key target to increase by 40 per cent. the adoption of children from care. As he has done throughout the process, he stressed the need to listen to the voice of young people in care as the real experts about the system. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) for his kind words. Now that the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), is back in her place, I reiterate my thanks for her ministerial role, her support and her hard work as we have taken this Bill through the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) should not talk down her role. We have had many experts on this Bill, but there have also been many people who did not start as experts but rapidly became experts, and she falls into that category. She rightly re-emphasised the importance of provision of information to prospective adopters when such improvements have been possible to the legislation.
The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) once again emphasised the need to ensure effective implementation, and reminded us, as did other hon. Members, about the significant position in the Bill of the paramountcy of the child, which is at its heart. As I suggested earlier, that has received support on both sides of the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West should probably have won a prize for the best jokes—never mind his pronunciation of Meirionnydd Nant Conwy—during the passage of the Bill. He was also able to be extremely serious, as he showed this evening, when once again he campaigned and pressed hard on the issue of access to information.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) should not be sorry about coming late to the Bill, as, although I have not necessarily agreed with him, he made an interesting contribution today and last Thursday.
The hon. Member for Canterbury spelled out why children need the stability provided by adoption. He raised some concerns about contact, which will undoubtedly be discussed further in another place. I want him to recognise, however, that the special nature of contact in adoption is the reason why we have put forward these provisions.
Last August, when I launched the Government's national adoption standards, I was privileged to meet several adopters and their adopted children. During the event, I was able to watch the children and their adoptive parents. They laughed together, they argued and there were tears, but there were also hugs. That is what being 122 in a family is about. Adoption can offer that opportunity to more children. The Bill will ensure that it does so, and I commend it to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.
§ Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We are about to decide on the draft Health Service (Control of Patient Information) Regulations 2002, but what advice can you give to those Members who, although they support the substance of the regulations, are very concerned about the lack of scrutiny that the House has been able to give to the Government's proposals? The one and a half hour debate in Standing Committee descended into what might be described as organised chaos with a welter of points of order. Neither the Conservative party's Front-Bench spokesman nor myself, as the Liberal Democrats' Front-Bench spokesman, were able to speak and to ask questions of the Government, because there was so little time and because of the confusion surrounding the regulations. We are now being asked to approve these important regulations even though they have not received adequate scrutiny. Do you have any advice for hon. Members?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)
I understand that the Committee considered the regulations and reported in accordance with Standing Orders. I do not therefore think that there is anything that I can do to assist the hon. Gentleman. Standing Order No. 118(6) requires me to put the Question now, and that is what I must do.