HL Deb 14 June 1999 vol 602 cc76-90

7.17 p.m.

Lord Meston rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have any proposals to reform the law and practice relating to adoption and fostering.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, First and foremost in regard to adoption and fostering there is the question of the future legislative framework for adoption. Our existing statute derives from the time when adoption was still largely concerned with babies rather than older children.

As long ago as July 1989, a comprehensive review of adoption law was started. After four discussion papers, three background papers, a report to Ministers, a White Paper and a separate consultation paper, that review culminated in March 1996 when the Department of Health and the Welsh Office issued a consultative document and a draft adoption Bill. The final consultation period ended in June 1996. The draft Bill was far more than an updating of the law to bring adoption more in line with the Children Act 1989, although that is important in itself. It was an attempt to bring the law into line with developments in social work practice and to meet criticism of the working of the present law. The draft Bill included express provision to avoid delay in the whole legal process. It also recognised that a larger proportion of children available for adoption were not small babies but children with views and wishes of their own.

The draft Bill received cross-party support and (perhaps more importantly) was generally welcomed by those who work in adoption. Nothing happened. It was speculated that the previous government, in their final days, became reluctant to get involved in awkward questions such as trans-racial adoption, adoption by unmarried couples and "open" adoption.

Unfortunately, the present Government have yet to show their hand and take on the proposed changes to adoption law. All we have are two paragraphs in the consultation document Supporting Families about changes to adoption guidelines and reports of some other rather general remarks by Ministers. I accept and welcome the fact that the question of inter-country adoption is now being covered by a Bill introduced in another place by my honourable friend the Member for Winchester—that measure has also recently been introduced into your Lordships' House—but to some extent the problems created by overseas adoptions are a reflection of the perceived difficulties of the adoption process here.

If the substantive changes to domestic law are not brought forward, not only will a great deal of time, hard work and hard thinking have been wasted but cracks in our existing law will widen and be exposed to the Human Rights Act. In particular, it has been suggested that the existing provisions relating to freeing for adoption are unsatisfactory, add to delay and create "legal orphans", to adopt a description used by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, in a recent case. The provisions for placement in the shelved draft Bill are a carefully crafted alternative.

One area that needs to be thought through carefully concerns the mechanisms for facilitating contact between adults who were adopted and their natural parents. It is a difficult and delicate task. There is a diversity of practice and resources provided by different local authorities which is almost capricious. There is now much research into post-adoption contact which needs to be reflected in modern legislation. Adoption can be an agonising process, particularly for natural parents for whom a child out of sight is never out of mind. The popular concentration on abused and neglected children overlooks the trauma and stigma felt by those natural parents who are not abusers. Likewise, the caricature of the politically correct social worker is equally unfair. Social workers recognise that children who are unable to stay with their birth families deserve the best that can be obtained by way of a secure permanent home environment. Usually, the worst that can be said is that sometimes they try too hard, and therefore too long, to get the right match for a child.

It is beyond dispute that some children are not easily placed, and in some cases local authorities are compelled to use expensive specialist agencies. Research by British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering (BAFF), assisted by the Department of Health, into children adopted from care revealed, among a number of worrying points, that a declining number of children were being adopted from care, confirmed recently by latest statistics; that it took an average of four years for children to be adopted after beginning to be looked after; that 36 per cent of the children adopted had experienced three or more moves; and that 16 per cent of children freed or relinquished for adoption two years before had still not been placed with new families.

Last year BAFF launched its action plan to improve adoption services with many positive features that I hope the Government support. Those who are willing to adopt and foster children are a valuable national resource, particularly those who will. take on older children, siblings or the disabled. Foster parents in particular may have to deal with demanding and damaged children with remaining attachments to their original families. Adoptive parents offer a total commitment, usually without any financial cushion. To make the most of that resource we need a framework of law and support, including post-adoption services, which will encourage and not discourage. We should be aiming at a system which inspires confidence that it will work well, fairly and quickly and provides an independent and robust complaints procedure when it does not work well.

If the law is not changed, there will be yet further pressure to amend the Children Act 1989 to remove the inability of the courts which make care orders to reconsider cases when care plans have not been implemented after a year or some other fixed period. Judges and practitioners see too many children who drift in the care system and are subjected to many placements.

Since I tabled this Question a comprehensive volume of research directed by Professors Lowe and Murch, and funded by the Department of Health, entitled Supporting Adoption: Reframing the Approach, has been published. It is not possible to do that work any justice in a time-limited debate, but it is a rich source of information. Among other things, it draws attention to the diversity of ways in which agencies work and suggests options for restructuring. At the end the authors say: We support the Department of Health's decision to set up a committee under the chairmanship of Professor Roy Parker to consider and refine messages for practice arising from this and other recent adoption research. However, we think that a focus. on practice development alone is not enough. Law reform arid structural change, insofar as they set the context for practice, are of fundamental importance and, as we have sought to demonstrate, also need to be addressed".

I turn briefly to fostering. I ask the Government about their attitude to the payment, status and regulation of foster parents. Is there not now a need to recognise that foster parents, who are often doing full-time paid jobs, should not be deemed to be volunteers? There. is a need for a standardisation of payments to foster parents rather than the present diversity across the country; and serious consideration should be given to providing pensionable status. Will voluntary organisations be able to approve foster carers rather than by the somewhat tortuous arrangements through local authorities as now exist? What arrangements are proposed for the inspection by local authorities of foster carers in the independent sector?

In this short speech I have touched on only some of the problems which arise, but I look forward to the response of the Government.

7.27 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, we are all very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Meston, for asking this Unstarred Question tonight. I am very conscious that he is infinitely more knowledgeable on this subject than I am, but I put down my name to speak for three quite personal reasons. First, when I was in local government—I now realise that it was a long time ago—I was chairman of what was then known as a children's committee, which became an adoption agency. I was the first chairman of that body. I then realised what an immensely important but very valuable task it was.

Secondly, I know very well three couples who have adopted children. As to one of those couples who adopted those children as babies, I am godmother to one of them who is now an adult. One can see how tremendously successful they have been. Certainly, in at least two cases the prospects for those particular children would have been very poor indeed. As it is, no one would know—unless someone happened to ask—that they were not the natural children of the parents. It is very important to recognise that love is everywhere. You can love an adopted child, who is yours in law, just as much as a natural child—and, for all I know, sometimes a bit more. When it works it is a wonderful relationship.

My third reason for speaking tonight is the tremendous importance that I attach to support of the traditional family. For those children who do not have that benefit, if it is possible to find them an adoptive family it is a miracle, assuming that it works well.

As the noble Lord, Lord Meston, pointed out, one of the tragedies in the figures one sees is that the number of adoptions has fallen recently concurrently with the fact that there are now more children in care. Unfortunately so many children who spend a long time in care suffer from acute educational disadvantages and, sadly, end up in prostitution and homelessness. As patron of a special school which helps children with terrible educational problems. I visited recently and heard of a little girl aged nine who, I think that I am right in remembering, had had 40 different placements in her life. It is hardly surprising that the child was unable to learn. If one considers for five minutes what that child must have suffered, it is a terrible situation.

In this debate it is important that we address this point. My figures may not be correct. I am sure that the Minister will correct them. However, there are something like 87,500 children in care, four out of 10 of whom are under the age of 10; and one in 20 is a baby under one year. Although those figures may not be absolutely correct, the position is something like that. Children are in care for a variety of reasons. Some will unquestionably return to their families: they are in care for a specific reason for a short period of time, and will go back to the family. I do not suggest that all those children are suitable for adoption or fostering. But many will not return to their natural parents.

I am concerned that, as the noble Lord said, it takes over three years for an adoption to take place. One can imagine the feelings of the prospective adoptive parents; and the child may be old enough to know what is going on during this lengthy period. Perhaps the Minister will say something about the apparent—I should like to be corrected on this—somewhat anti-adoption culture among some social services departments. Many of those organisations need to undergo a culture change.

It would be interesting to hear comment, if it were possible, on the case of the couple who hoped to adopt two little girls and, quite improperly I agree, as it were kidnapped them because they were afraid they would be unable to adopt them. One has to ask this question. Whatever the outcome, if the two little girls are not adopted what are their prospects?

I sometimes think that social workers are looking for perfect parents. They simply will not find them. None of us is perfect. Most parents are good enough. That may be a general definition, but good enough is what many parents are; and they bring up children successfully. They make their mistakes, but who among us can say that we have never made a mistake as a parent? I certainly could not make that statement, and I do not know anyone with whom I have discussed the matter who could.

I read the interesting action plan to improve adoption services by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering. It makes a number of extremely valuable suggestions as to what might be done. The noble Lord, Lord Meston, has referred to them. I shall not repeat the points he made. Many children could find happiness in a stable home. Many couples long to adopt children. If one cannot have children, one has to make a tremendous commitment and to want children very badly to undertake such responsibility. There is the cost involved, and the time that one has to give up. As we all know, delightful though children are, they are with us for a very long time, and the older they get the nicer it all is.

I agree that we need legislation. I make only one comment on fostering. When I was in local government, I used to consider that foster parents were rather like the lifeboats of society: they rescue people in very difficult circumstances. I have never seen any objection to their being properly paid for this job. It requires professionalism of a high degree. Clearly if they are busy being foster parents they will not be able to undertake any other occupation. It is not unreasonable that they should be paid properly for what they are doing. I am sorry to hear that there is inconsistency of payment. I imagine that each local authority has its own ideas on that issue. Many women might be perfectly happy to look after children—they might find it an infinitely more interesting job than the alternatives—if they were paid properly to do so, and it would be valuable for society.

I conclude by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Meston. It is an important question. I very much hope that the Minister can say something constructive on what is one of the most important tasks in society.

7.36 p.m.

Lord Laming

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord on initiating this debate on a subject of great importance to the well-being of many children and young people in public care. The noble Lord and the noble Baroness made a number of important comments about adoption. I wish to begin by making some points about fostering.

Whether the figures of children in public care refer to the United Kingdom or England, the fact is that about two-thirds of those children are this evening with foster parents. That illustrates the important contribution that foster parents make to the well-being of children and young people in our society. But it was not always like this. Perhaps I may be excused a personal comment. When I first trained as a social worker, I visited a number of extremely large institutions which were geographically isolated, and where the young people in those institutions lived a structured and formal life, cut off from the rest of society. Noble Lords can well imagine what it must have been like for those young people when they left the institution and returned to society without the experience of using public transport, or doing the ordinary everyday things that other young people did in the normal course of their development.

We welcome the fact that in the 1960s there were two major changes in childcare in this country. The first was the development of preventive work which aimed at enabling families to overcome their difficulties in particular at times of crises in order that they could continue to look after their own children with proper support and help. The second was the promotion of foster care so that the children in public care had the possibility of experiencing living in an ordinary home and enjoying the benefits of being part of a family, albeit a substitute family.

As has been indicated, we should pay tribute to the thousands of families who have opened their homes to take on the care of other people's children. Those families have done the most extraordinary things. Sometimes they have been willing to operate in emergencies, receiving a call at any time of day or night. At other times they have taken on the care of children on a long-term basis when there was no prospect of those children becoming permanent members of their family. Other foster parents have been willing to open their homes to children who have been abused or neglected by the adults in their lives and who have therefore understandably behaved in a distrustful, challenging and sometimes destructive way. Other foster parents have been willing to open their homes to children with severe physical disabilities or severe mental impairments.

Foster care is a great success story in this country. While I was in the Department of Health, I became increasingly aware of how frequently other countries envied the contribution of foster parents and the part they play in childcare services in this country. However, here, I begin to express concerns about the present situation. While the closure of the vast institutions to which I have referred was to be welcomed, I fear the pendulum has swung too far. Many local authorities have closed their smaller-sized children's homes and some have even closed all of their children's homes. While the desire to give every child in care the opportunity to experience life as part of a normal family is laudable, the fact is that many such young people need time to recover from the trauma of earlier events. They need space in a safe place and they need intensive and skilled counselling. Some need firm control and a secure and consistent framework in which they can work out their pain and conflicts.

Therefore, it cannot be a case of "foster care, good; residential care, bad". The fact is that we need both, and we certainly need good quality residential care. When I was a director of social services, my regard for the foster parents was equalled by my admiration for the excellent work undertaken by staff in residential care units. Some authorities have closed a large number or all of their residential units, which has too often resulted in a great burden being placed upon foster parents with inadequate support. As a result, too many young people are experiencing far too many moves, as has already been indicated. Those moves serve only to increase their insecurity, disrupt their education and provoke much avoidable disturbed behaviour.

It has also resulted in another trend; that of young people being placed in residential centres many miles from their familiar environment. It is bad enough to lose your family, but much worse to lose all contacts with your friends and with familiar places such as schools and leisure centres. Even worse, there is a real danger that some of these young people will feel abandoned and it may be a case of "out of sight, out of mind".

I believe that the Government are to be congratulated on having forcefully reminded local authorities of their duty to be good parents to every child and young person in public care. With that in mind, I urge the Minister and her colleagues to continue to press that every local authority achieves at least the following standards. First, every child and young person in public care should have a named social worker in charge of protecting his welfare and promoting his interests. Secondly, each child should have a personal care plan which is reviewed regularly against indicators of progress or problems. Thirdly, each child should be safe from harm and everything should be done to promote his security and stability.

Fourthly, each local authority should behave towards each child as we would hope and expect a good parent to behave. Fifthly, foster parents and residential workers should be valued as partners in the caring process and their skills and knowledge should be respected. Sixthly, local authorities should display a greater ambition for each of the children and young people in their care. It is necessary to be a good parent for a child to achieve its full potential, and too often that has not been apparent in the way some local authorities have carried out their corporate duties. Seventhly, every local authority should demonstrate that it has access to a full range of provisions at local level so that children are not just fitted into inappropriate placements.

One recommendation to the Government is that organisations such as the National Foster Care Association should be given adequate core funding to ensure that they continue to be well managed and to play an important part in fostering and adoption services in this country.

Finally, perhaps I may add to the points which have been made about adoption. We all agree that keeping families together is a worthwhile objective. A number of authorities have developed helpful and excellent family support services. Many voluntary organisations contribute a great deal to this work. But as a result of that and smaller families, fewer children are placed for adoption. However, the children should not be allowed to languish for years in uncertainty waiting on the convenience of the adults in their lives. The early years pass all too quickly and each young person needs to have a sense of security during his childhood. Adolescence can be difficult enough without the added uncertainty of not knowing where you belong or constant disruption resulting from the behaviour of the adults to whom you should look for your well-being.

I say that because some no longer regard adoption as a positive option to be considered alongside all other options. Too often it seems that adoption is regarded as a last resort and not as an option of equal status with other possibilities. I was most interested in the document published earlier today from the Social Exclusion Unit on teenage pregnancy. The graph on page 59 shows clearly how in recent years the number of adoptions has reduced dramatically in this country. Adoption should be regarded for some children and young people as the positive option, the option of choice. With that in mind, it is important for everyone associated with the adoption process to recognise that we all have limited abilities to predict and, in many instances, looking for the excellent parent is unrealistic. We need to ensure that apparently suitable people are not ruled out on the basis of some generality and that adoption should be freed of unproven ideological baggage.

I know that the Government and the Association of Directors of Social Services are giving thought to these matters and I wish them all well in their endeavour to achieve a better and lasting outcome for every child and young person in public care.

7.47 p.m.

Earl Howe

My Lords, for the second time in as many sitting days, the House is debating the protection of children. Surely, few other issues have as great a bearing either on the well-being of society or the values which society professes to uphold. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Meston, has chosen to highlight the needs of children in care and I agree with almost all of what he said.

The Government are to be commended for all they have done to improve the law and practice relating to adoption, not least in their support for the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Bill which received its Third Reading in another place last Friday. I commend, too, the excellent circular issued by the Department of Health last August to local authorities which contained some fundamentally important messages for adoption agencies, social services departments and all those who are concerned with children's services. Those messages stand four-square with the work done by the previous government; notably the Children Act 1989, but also the 1993 White Paper on adoption, the impetus for which came from my right honourable friend Mrs. Bottomley, to whom credit should be paid. That was followed by the consultation document and the draft Bill issued in 1996.

I wish to concentrate on two particular aspects of the adoption issue—the place of adoption in the hierarchy of available options and the defects in the current system. Both take as their starting point the sobering picture revealed by recent statistics. My noble friend Lady Young pointed out that over the past few years we have seen a rise in the number of children coming into care, including a rise in the number of care orders being made through the courts, and at the same time a steady fall in the number of adoptions.

Underlying the fall in adoptions is a pattern of performance by local authorities which can most kindly be described as variable but which, in reality, contains some truly woeful track records. It was not for nothing, therefore, that Mr Boeteng's circular of last August had to spell out some of the fundamental facts of life on adoption.

We know from research studies, as we should know from sheer common sense, that the longer a child remains in the care system the worse his chances of emerging into adulthood undamaged. By contrast, children who have been adopted fare a great deal better emotionally, socially and at school. The success rate for adoption is typically high. The sense of security and well-being engendered by being a permanent part of a loving and supportive family is of inestimable value and, not surprisingly, the earlier the age the adoption begins, the better the prospects.

Again, we would do well to remind ourselves of the statistics. Young people who have been in care are 50 times more likely than other children to go to gaol. Those who have been in care comprise 38 per cent of young offenders and 23 per cent of adult prisoners. When we look at the hard costs of dealing with youth crime, never mind the cost in damaged lives, it really is extremely difficult to argue that the under-resourcing and under-performance of adoption services are shortcomings that we should be content to live with.

However, youth crime is only part of the story. Emotional deprivation spawns a whole host of social problems. Children growing up in council-run homes are statistically many times more likely to leave school without any educational qualifications and to become jobless. They are 60 times more likely to be homeless and 88 times more likely to be drug abusers. I noted with interest the launch today of the Prime Minister's campaign to cut the incidence of teenage pregnancies. One in four teenage girls in care becomes pregnant, and their babies, not altogether surprisingly, are 66 times more likely than other children to finish up in care. So the whole cycle is self-perpetuating.

The scandal of the numbers of children in care homes is not just the numbers, and not just that they are increasingly stuck there. It is that many local authorities have no information about how well pupils in care are doing at school, no means of adequately monitoring care plans for such children, and seemingly no sense that their strategic plans for children's services, including the recruitment of adopters, should occupy centre stage instead of being, as it so often is, a bit of a side-show.

In defence of some of these local authorities it is often said that because a large proportion of children placed for adoption are aged five and over—some 70 per cent—the system has to be geared to the difficulties and needs of those children. Clearly, it must be true that the effort required to place an older child successfully is more demanding of resources than that required for a younger child.

However, one needs to look behind those figures. It is, for example, perfectly true that only a very small number of children under one year old are adopted each year but the statistics on children who are adopted from care show that no less than 28 per cent of them started to be looked after by the childcare system under the age of one month, and a further 24 per cent between the age of one month and one year. In other words, even though most adopted children are adopted when aged 5 and over, well over half have already been in the system virtually all their lives. If I have one criticism of the circular issued by the Department of Health in August last year it is that it fails to bring out that point sufficiently.

As my noble friend Lady Young emphasised, the average length of time a child in care has to wait before being adopted is three years eight months. One in six children freed for adoption is not placed with an adoptive family for two years. Clearly, in many such cases there are perfectly valid reasons why some delay occurs. However, it is right that in the early period following a care order every avenue should be explored in an effort to return a child to his or her parents of birth. But there is strong evidence to suggest that with many social workers these efforts are continued for far longer than can possibly be justified by the interests of the children themselves. There is no doubt that the problems experienced by some adopted children are made worse by having been shunted from pillar to post in the preceding years and by the delays they have had to put up with in finding a placement.

There seems to be an automatic presumption that genetic parents are preferable to adoptive parents, even when there is a history of cruelty and neglect. All too often what is counted as "a successful outcome" to care is the return of a child to his birth family, almost without regard for the long-term result of that arrangement.

At present there are about 10,000 children awaiting adoption and 1,100 approved adopters waiting for children to adopt. Social services departments talk about the risks involved in failing to match a child with the right parents and that, of course, is a fair point. However, there are times when a risk needs to be put in context and then accepted. The context, in this case, is surely the recognised risks associated with leaving a child in care.

I am afraid to say that one of the most pernicious features of the current system is the misguided attitude taken by some local authorities to trans-racial adoptions. Matching a child with parents of the same race is clearly a highly desirable objective but it is an ideal that should not stand in the way of common sense. The alternative to placing a black or mixed race child with white adoptive parents is all too often a succession of placements over many years with white foster parents. The success rate in trans-racial adoptions is very high, yet local authorities and adoption agencies have continued to ignore departmental directives that have explicitly discouraged the assiduous pursuit of racial matching. I sense that more than just repeated guidance is needed if the prevalence of that syndrome is to recede.

I read in the press that the Cabinet committee on the family is launching a full-scale review on adoption. I should like to ask the Minister whether that is correct. It is impossible for me, in a short debate of this kind, to list everything that I feel such a committee should be looking at. However, can the Minister say whether some of the ideas advanced by the previous government will be examined? Will the Government, for example, consider broadening the base of adoption panels to include more independent members? Will they look at the possibility of giving children above a certain age the legal right to participate in their own adoption proceedings, or making the welfare of the child subject to more explicit legal tests for the court to assess? Will they consider the setting up of a complaints system as well as ways of ensuring that local authorities publicise their range of adoption services so as to encourage more families to consider adoption?

Can the Minister say whether the Government are open-minded about an automatic cut-off point so that when a child has spent a specific amount of time in the care system there will be a presumption in favour of adoption for that child? Will they also consider a similar procedure in the case of ethnic minority children for whom adoptive parents of the same race cannot be found but where white adopters are available'?

Finally, what are the Government doing to promote the dissemination of best practice among local authorities including active partnership arrangements and training opportunities for staff? I do not know, but I would be interested to find out, whether the Government will continue to examine the case for setting up a central authority for adoption as not only a guardian of standards but also to maintain a central register of adoptable children.

These are only some of the issues that should be addressed. I sometimes think that the more departmental activity there is on this subject, and the more Ministers make worthy pronouncements on it, the worse the statistics seem to get. I hope that the Government will succeed in translating some of their undoubtedly laudable intentions into concrete achievements.

7.59 p.m.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Meston, for raising this important and timely question in your Lordships' House tonight. In our short debate it elicited some considered and well-informed contributions. I ought perhaps also to add my own thanks for the support in trying to assist me to be a good parent in terms of the timing of our debate.

I hope that I can reassure those who have spoken of Her Majesty's Government's commitment to improving standards and services for children, including adoption and foster care. Not only was it boldly stated in the White Paper, Modernising Social Services, but it is also being translated into action. In particular, we are heavily engaged in introducing forward-looking programmes and supporting initiatives designed to achieve important changes to enhance the quality of adoption and foster care to create more of the successes to which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, alluded and to help more people to do some of the extraordinary things which, as the noble Lord, Lord Laming, rightly said, adoptive and foster parents do.

The noble Lord, Lord Meston, commenced his speech on the issue of legislative reform. It is currently focused on the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Private Member's Bill which went through another place and recently had its First Reading in your Lordships' House. That Bill provides for the first time a sound legal basis for inter-country adoption. It also provides the opportunity for the United Kingdom to give effect to the 1993 Hague Convention on the protection of children and co-operation in respect of inter-country adoption. That convention was signed by the United Kingdom in January 1994. Finally, the Bill introduces measures to prevent trafficking in children. When enacted it will enable the United Kingdom to meet an important national commitment to protect children in inter-country adoption.

But legislation is not essential to achieve important improvements in adoption practice. There are opportunities for adoption agencies to achieve those improvements and we are supporting a range of initiatives to make that happen. Measures to improve the standard and quality of adoption and foster care are making good progress, and many of those measures are being introduced through the Quality Protects programme which was introduced last September. It brings new and challenging dimensions to the overall improvement of children's services and to that end we have made £375 million available to local authorities over three years in the form of a children's services special grant to assist them implement specific projects.

The general aim of the Quality Protects programme is the systematic transformation of the management of social services for children and the outcomes we achieve for those children. The objectives include many areas to which reference has been made tonight as well as trying to tackle some of the problems mentioned. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, spoke of the need to reduce the number of changes of main carers for children being looked after. Several speakers talked of the need to maximise the contribution that adoption can make to providing permanent families for children in appropriate cases, and for reducing the period children remain looked after before being placed for adoption or other suitable long-term care.

The Quality Protects programme aims to maximise the use of adoption and reduce delays while still making the right decisions for individual children. Everyone who spoke tonight recognised that making the judgments of what will be the right decision for an individual child is not a simple issue or necessarily a straightforward one. As the noble Earl, Lord Howe, suggested, it is a balancing of risks and we have a special responsibility to do that in the most thorough and considered way for children who are living away from their own families. But the performance of local authorities will be measured against performance indicators and targets which will include addressing the issue of delay in placing children with new families. I am sure that is right. Concern was expressed about the variability there has been in performance in the past.

I should like to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Laming, that bringing adoption back into the mainstream of options available for children is a crucial aspect of Quality Protects. Adoption has too often been regarded by some as an option of last resort, to be considered when all others have been examined and found wanting. But we must recognise that adoption is sometimes the only opportunity available to a child of belonging to a family. I should like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to adoptive parents and foster families who come forward to provide care for those vulnerable young members of society and who provide that valuable, natural resource to which the noble Lord, Lord Meston, referred, often in challenging and difficult circumstances.

The Quality Protects programme was a key element in Her Majesty's Government's response to the Children's Safeguards Review and will be the main focus for guiding and monitoring the improvements. Those changes come at a time when the nature of adoption itself is changing. As the noble Lord, Lord Meston, pointed out, babies are no longer the majority of children needing new families. Children over one year of age are now the main focus, many of whom have been victims of abuse and trauma in their young lives. The older the child who comes into the care system and who needs a new family, the more difficult is the task of finding a suitable home for him, and the more apparent the dangers to which the noble Earl, Lord Howe, referred of the problems that can arise from years of waiting in unsatisfactory circumstances.

On that point, perhaps I can say to the noble Earl that the Government have made it clear that it is unacceptable for a child to be denied loving, adoptive parents solely on the grounds that the child and the adopters do not share the same racial and cultural background. Adoption agencies must ensure that the appropriate level of help is made available to prospective adopters who do not share the same race or culture as the child, to enable the child to maintain continuity with the heritage of its birth family in its day-to-day life. But it certainly should not be an obstacle to the proper placement of children.

In relation to post-adoption contact—the issue to which the noble Lord, Lord Meston, referred—adoption is more open and has been so in recent years. Courts are more sympathetic to children retaining some form of contact with their birth parents where that is in the best interests of the child. That is particularly the case where siblings are involved and we have to recognise the specific strains those can put on a child's situation.

I turn now to fostering issues. As the House will be aware, services provided to children living away from home in this country have been under considerable scrutiny in the past two years as a result of continuing revelations of abuse, mostly in children's homes but also in other settings such as foster care, over the preceding years. Noble Lords will he aware that in November 1997 we received a report of the Children's Safeguards Review, which was set up to look at the safeguards for children living away from home and to make recommendations about how to make them more effective. That was followed in July 1998 by a report from the House of Commons Health Committee on looked-after children. Its report detailed wide-ranging concerns about how the care system was failing those children and made equally wide-ranging recommendations on the need to improve the standards of care and the outcomes for children looked after, two-thirds of whom—as the noble Lord, Lord Laming, reminded us—are in foster care. That is the background against which the Government have responded positively, establishing a major programme of measures to improve services for looked-after children, including those in foster care. The Quality Protects programme which was launched in September 1988 sets new objectives for children's services. That programme is backed up with £375 million of additional money for local authorities in the form of a children's social services special grant.

One of the six key priority areas for the programme is to improve the supply and choice of placement options for looked-after children. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Laming, that this will not only include foster placements but also the provision of sufficient placements in children's homes. As the noble Lord said, there is a very important need for a variety of accessible situations.

We recognise that foster care will not be appropriate for all children and that a variety of options should be available to local authorities so that placements are genuinely suited to the needs of individual children.

Part of the special grant money will be used for this purpose, and indeed local authorities will not receive their share of the grant unless they can show that there is sufficient placement choice for their looked-after children. Far too many children are put in inappropriate placements, resulting in frequent moves and a consequent unstable life, with all the damaging effects that have been described in the debate.

With the extra money, local authorities will be able to recruit and support a greater range of foster carers to meet different children's needs and to ensure that children and young people can exercise some preference.

Local authorities will be monitored by the Department of Health to see how well they implement measurable improvements in this and other areas.

The Government's commitment to improve services for looked-after children was set out last November in their response to the Children Safeguard Review. This covers the Quality Protects programme and other measures designed to improve the quality of care for looked-after children. For example, for the first time we are introducing national standards of foster care which were developed by the United Kingdom joint working party on foster care, comprising representatives from directors of social services, local government associations, foster carers and others from across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There was also very wide consultation with social services departments, carers, children and young people about what those standards should reflect. Again, for the first time we are introducing a code of practice on the recruitment, assessment, approval, training, management and support of foster carers to improve the safety aspects of the fostering service.

Together, these publications, which we hope to launch on 22nd June, will provide a much clearer framework for the fostering service and will help to improve its quality.

In responding to the Children's Safeguard Review, the Government stated that they would support the development of national and local recruitment campaigns for foster parents. I am pleased to say that work is currently under way at the Department of Health in co-operation with the Association of Directors of Social Services and other foster care interests to develop a suitable national campaign. I hope that that will lead to more people considering taking up the unique challenge of caring for children from other families by becoming foster carers.

The noble Lord, Lord Meston, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, asked about payment of allowances to foster carers. We recognise the important role played by foster carers and that they should he appropriately rewarded and supported. However, in the context of overall policy we believe that it is for local authorities to determine the level of allowance they pay to their foster carers.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, asked about the implications of the paper being submitted to the ministerial group on the family. It is likely that the Quality Protects programme will be allowed to run its course before a more radical view is taken to deal with some of the weaknesses in the adoption services, but that has yet to be fully considered, and we will have to look at those broader issues in the longer term.

The point has been well made tonight that for most children who are looked after by local authorities we should not rule out the possibility of adoption; far from it, we should make sure that it is a mainstream option. For those who are not able to be adopted, foster care should be a best placement option for many of them. A stable and happy family home will be the best environment in which they can develop. We are confident that the positive action that the Government are taking will help to achieve a healthy and vibrant fostering service.

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do adjourn during pleasure until a quarter past eight.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.14 to 8.16 p.m.]