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  Adoption and Children Bill

This was Richard's maiden speech, given in the chamber of the House of Commons on 29 October 2001

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): It is with a sense of responsibility and honour that I make my maiden speech in this House. I represent the constituency of South Norfolk, and it is only right to begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, John MacGregor, now Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market. Lord MacGregor had a distinguished career. He served the people of South Norfolk for 27 years as their Member of Parliament. For 15 years of those years he was in government, and nine of those were spent as a Cabinet member. He served as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Agriculture Minister, Secretary of State for Education, Secretary of State for Transport and Leader of the House.

As many hon. Members will be aware, Lord MacGregor is also a talented magician, and not any old magician but a member of the inner Magic Circle with gold stars. That sounds a bit like the magicians' equivalent of being a member of the Privy Council - and I venture to suggest that as a member of the inner Magic Circle he was probably vouchsafed more secrets than are most Privy Councillors in the present Cabinet.

John used his talents as a magician to good effect in raising money for charity, notably when he beheaded the editor of the Eastern Daily Press, Mr. Peter Franzen, with a guillotine. He also once performed a similar service by beheading Mr. James Naughtie and Mr. John Humphrys of the BBC Radio 4 "Today" programme although the House may be interested to know that on that occasion he used a chainsaw.

That prompted a number of colleagues to say that they were rather surprised that, having got those two in such a vulnerable position, John had not simply finished them off. To one or two hon. Members, that may sound somewhat extreme, but I cannot help reflecting that if John Humphrys knew that each time he asked a question he stood a chance of having his head severed from his body if he interrupted before the answer was complete, the quality of the "Today" programme would improve out of all recognition.

John MacGregor will be missed in this House, but I know that he will be an excellent addition to the other place, and will continue to contribute to political debate in this country.

What sort of constituency is South Norfolk? It is very rural, with an attractive and gently undulating landscape. In the north it borders the ancient city of Norwich, where many of my constituents work, and in the south are the beautiful market towns of Harleston and Diss, and the River Waveney, which borders the county of Suffolk. In the east is the town of Loddon, an architectural gem, and in the west is Wymondham, the largest settlement in the constituency, which has a magnificent abbey dating from the 12th century and the Market Cross where markets have taken place since the 13th century. To this day, the Market Cross is used for the Wymondham farmers' market, which has recently been rejuvenated following the foot and mouth crisis, and provides an excellent opportunity for local farmers to sell their meat and other produce at a much better price than they would get from the supermarkets.

In the far west of the constituency is Hingham, without question one of the most beautiful villages in Norfolk, where one Samuel Lincoln lived until 1637, when he emigrated to the new world, settled in Hingham, Massachusetts, and became the direct lineal ancestor of perhaps the greatest of all the American presidents, Abraham Lincoln.

Local services and the infrastructure in the constituency are improving, but there is some way to go. The dualling of the A11 creeps forward slowly. Norwich is now the only major city in the United Kingdom without a direct motorway link. The residents of Long Stratton cry out desperately for a bypass.

As I speak, the new Norfolk constabulary building is being completed in Wymondham, and will provide a welcome home for the constabulary, who have been dispersed among 10 or 11 different administrative buildings. They will now be in one, which will, I am pleased to say, save the taxpayer money. That will not, however, alter the problems of police recruitment and retention, which are caused by the fact that police officers spend so much of their time filling in forms and so relatively little out on the beat.

The new Norfolk and Norwich hospital, which has just been opened, is just outside my constituency, in that of the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke). Many of my constituents use that hospital, and many of them work there.

I endorse the comments of the chairman of the police authority, Mr. Jim Wilson, who wrote to the chief executive of the Highways Agency yesterday to express the serious concerns of the emergency services- not only the police but the ambulance service - about the lack of a suitable link road to the hospital. That issue has been running for many years; the problem was both predictable and predicted. I shall certainly add my weight to the cause of sorting it out soon, and finally getting the Highways Agency to take it seriously.

There are excellent schools in my constituency, one of which is Wymondham high school. I had the pleasure of visiting that school last week to present the prizes at the awards ceremony, and I hope that it will be third time lucky for its third bid for specialist performing arts status.

I could not possibly talk about my constituency without mentioning agriculture, which locally is very significant. Although it employs only 6.7 per cent. of the labour force, that is still three times the national average. Of course, agriculture has suffered hugely. We were lucky enough not to suffer from foot and mouth directly, but we have suffered many of the indirect effects. We did suffer directly from classical swine fever, and there has been a huge reduction in agricultural employment in the constituency.

In the east of England, 3,600 jobs were lost in the agricultural sector in the year to last May, and more than 1,100 of those jobs were in Norfolk. The average farmer now earns only 5,200 a year - and I must add, in case anyone thinks that cereal farmers are somehow exempt, that the situation is even worse for them; they are now facing one of the greatest crises for two generations. I have joined many of my right hon. and hon. Friends in pressing the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to apply for the agrimonetary compensation that is available from the European Union so long as she applies by 31 October.

The local economy is much more diverse than the focus on agriculture would suggest. There is a wide variety of other activities, from services to manufacturing and electronics. Anyone who has ever moved house has probably used a box made by Bux Corrugated, a well run factory in my constituency, which I had the pleasure of touring with the managing director the other day. The firm has family-friendly policies; indeed, it employs different generations of the same family. Anyone who has ever had a car with an airbag has probably unknowingly bought products from Hamlin Electronics, which provides the sensors that cause an airbag to explode if necessary.

Lotus, the car manufacturer, is one of the largest employers in the constituency. Its plant is quite near where I live, and I am looking forward to visiting it shortly and testing out its wares on the fast track just to ensure that they are safe for my constituents, of course.

I have been advised that in a maiden speech it is unwise to try to make more than one substantive point about the Bill before the House. I shall try to stick to that, and I thought that it would be best for me to expand on the point made by the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), whom I am sorry to see is no longer in her place. She said that we must stop putting off prospective adopters. That is certainly true, particularly with ethnic minorities.

A paper in the journal Adoption and Fostering on initial agency responses to black prospective adopters makes it clear that people are often put off and lost at the initial inquiry stage because of negative initial contact with a variety of agencies. They may be lost not only to the agency to which they first applied but to adoption and fostering in general.

The study continues:

"Not only that, but offended inquirers will often tell their friends, and other potential adopters may never even reach the stage of an initial approach, if they feel they are going to be rebuffed".

The British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering noted:

"It is important that workers understand the 'ripple' effect of negative and positive contact first experienced by individuals. Experiences are quickly shared within communities and decisions are made based on this information as to whether particular agencies are worth approaching or not."

The study goes on:

"A January 2000 survey of 150 black people by The Voice revealed that 75 per cent. of respondents were put off by negative prior experiences, either their own or those of friends, in their dealings with social services . . . Comments included: 'I'm a barrister, I earn a good wage, yet I'd expect to be treated with disregard initially because that's how I've seen them treat other black people'; and 'Many of my friends had the impression that because I was black and single I would not be eligible so I didn't bother'. In response . . . BAAF's Marcia Spencer commented:

'Black families are willing to come forward but it's a question of how local authorities welcome them, how the process is explained and how individuals and families are supported through it.'"

There have been a number of references to the subject of same-race adoption, and whether it is better than other options. I listened with interest to the comments of the hon. Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey), and I tend to bow to her experience because she has seen many adoptions at close quarters. Same-race adoption may well be better, but that should not exclude other possibilities.

Indeed, the Department of Health's guidelines do not exclude the possibility of other options. On the contrary, they state:

"Any practice which classifies such couples"

that is, people who are not of the same ethnic origin as the child

"in a way that effectively rules out the adoption of a child whose origins differ from either or both prospective adopters is unacceptable."

Although the two may appear to run counter to each other, there is no reason in practice why one could not both do everything possible to encourage more families from ethnic minorities to become prospective adopters and, at the same time, heed the other important point in the guidelines, that not enough attention is paid to the factor of time. The guidelines state that

"there is a common perception among too many in the field that efforts to rehabilitate a child should be constrained by no timetable: that every effort should be made and all possibilities exhausted to try to secure the return of the child to his family - no matter how long it might take . . . Such a perception lacks proper balance. Time is not on the side of the child."

If the hon. Lady is right, it is sad, because she can be right only if people take into account factors of race and ethnic origin that should not matter. I often reflect on the words of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, which apply in the context of adoption and which could cause Conservative Members to think twice about the questions of same-sex adoption and unmarried adoption - although I do not offer a definite view on the issues. He said:

"Hold no one insignificant and nothing improbable for there is no one that has not his or her place and nothing that has not its moment."

Those are words that I shall carry with me in the House and try to remember as I do the job of Member of Parliament for South Norfolk. I thank the House for its indulgence in listening to me and I thank the people of South Norfolk for sending me here.


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