John Bowis, Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Health and responsible for the proposal, which will be set out in a White Paper this month, denied any question of a 'trade in babies'. Labour said it was a 'babies for sale' scheme.
Ministers have decided councils should be given the power to impose fees for home reports drawn up by social workers to assess the suitability of would-be parents. Under the charging scheme already allowed for adoptions from abroad, these generally cost pounds 1,500.
British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) and David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman,
attacked the scheme as helping the rich and penalising those on modest incomes.
Guidelines on charges, including a ceiling, will be published, and Mr Bowis said that he expected councils would charge according to both ability to pay and the needs of the child. 'In the case of a disturbed child I would have thought that the local authority would be more concerned to have the child placed with a good home, a good family, rather than charging,' he said.
Henrietta Bond, a BAAF spokeswoman, said: 'It could end up with a situation where children grow up feeling they have been bought and sold to the highest bidder, to parents who could afford to pay for the service rather than the families who could care for them best.'
Mr Blunkett said: 'We're in danger of creating a check-out counter mentality . . . . Adoption saves the nation money by caring for children who would otherwise be in care. Conservative plans to import schemes of 'babies for sale' operated abroad are distasteful and a regrettable symbol of the kind of cash-register society they are creating.'
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