HL Deb 26 March 1998 vol 587 cc1334-6

3.14 p.m.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they would support the establishment of an independent and accountable adoption authority in the United Kingdom to oversee the practice of inter-country and domestic adoption.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, the Government are always prepared to consider proposals to improve the quality and efficiency of the adoption service which, as my noble friend will be aware, is largely organised through local authorities and charitable agencies. My honourable friend Mr. Boateng who has departmental responsibility for adoption has recently organised a series of meetings and conferences designed to improve local authority practice in this important area. The Government's view is that a separate national adoption authority would not be in the best interests of the children involved. It is, of course, the interests of the children that must be paramount.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh

My Lords. I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for her reply. However, in the light of the European Parliament's statement that where a child has effectively been abandoned the child has a right to be adopted, does she agree that adoption should be considered for any child who has spent a specific amount of time in the care system; for instance, a period of 18 months?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, when a child has been abandoned it is the statutory duty of the local authority to care for that child until his or her future can be secured, which may be done either by locating the birth parent and returning the child in due course, or by arranging for the child to be placed with a suitable family who are able to meet the needs of that child. It may, of course, be the case that adoption is considered to be in the child's best interests. However, imposing an absolute timescale in dealing with such cases is widely regarded as not being in the best interests of the children because it simply does not allow many options to be considered.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, given the recent research by Miss Patricia Morgan showing that adopted children have a much better chance of success in their future, would she join Mr. Paul Boateng in deploring the constraints that currently exist upon adopters as compared with those being selected for local authority care?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am afraid I am not absolutely sure to what statement of my honourable friend the noble Lord refers. However, it is, of course, right that all children who are suitable for and appropriately placed in adoption should be given that opportunity. I have an interesting statistic which the noble Lord may or may not be aware of. I was not aware of it myself until I asked for some figures in relation to this Question. There are only 2,500 children at the moment who are regarded as being available for adoption. It is interesting to note that only 140 of those are babies under the age of one. I think that is the normal age group which people would expect to be available for adoption. Many more are in a much older age group and they are often much more difficult to place.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, bearing in mind the alleged shortcomings of some of our social workers in the adoption of children in the past, can the Minister confirm the Government's laudable intentions to abolish the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work? Can she further confirm to the House that any replacement will concentrate on the practical aspects of training and will avoid the excesses of the gender, race and class brigade?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am aware that there has been considerable criticism of some of the methods and, indeed, the attitudes of people in some places who are responsible locally for adoption. I agree with the noble Lord that particular training for social workers and for those involved in this sensitive area is an important issue. It is certainly one which my honourable friend is addressing.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I welcome what the noble Baroness said about the value of adoption. Will the Minister look closely at the findings of Miss Patricia Morgan in this important area because they bear out what she said in answer to an earlier question when she suggested that relatively few children are available for adoption while a far greater number languish in local authority homes—and, I suspect, languish in far worse accommodation in other parts of the world—who would benefit from homes that could be provided by would-be British adopters?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am happy to agree with the noble Baroness's general remarks. The guidance from the Department of Health has been very strong on total elimination of undue delays in adoption. The recommendations in Miss Patricia Morgan's report on that issue have been carefully observed.

Lord Meston

My Lords, do the Government intend to proceed with the overall reform of adoption law which was apparently shelved by the last government, and which would include ratification of the Hague Convention on inter-country adoption?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the Government have decided that they are unable to find legislative time in the immediate future for the comprehensive reform of adoption, which was indeed suggested in 1996. On the other hand, we have signed the 1993 Hague Convention on the protection of children and we intend to ratify that as soon as the necessary legislation is in place.

Baroness Gardener of Parkes

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred to children languishing in council homes. Is it not a fact that in the domestic situation many of those children are fostered? I do not refer to the international situation. What proportion of children are fostered as opposed to adopted?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have those precise national figures with me but I can, of course, write to the noble Baroness. She is right that many children are being very adequately looked after in foster homes. One of the problems about the timing for those children ready for adoption is that they are sometimes well settled with foster parents and even though adoptive parents are available, the disruption which might be caused to them may not be in their best interests, even though adoptive parents are available. As I said in answer to the earlier question, the balance of interests is sensitive but I think we all agree that it should be in favour of the children.

Earl Howe

My Lords, when the Government allocate legislative time for the ratification of the Hague Convention, can the noble Baroness say what role the Scottish parliament will have in determining the oversight of inter-country adoptions north of the Border?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, no, I am afraid that I cannot, but I shall write to the noble Earl, or ask one of my colleagues with responsibility for Scotland to do so.