Adoptions to be made easier and quicker

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Action to curb so-called "political correctness" which has caused misery for couples who want to adopt a child will be proposed in a Government White Paper next week.

Action to curb so-called "political correctness" which has caused misery for couples who want to adopt a child will be proposed in a Government White Paper next week.

Local authorities blamed for rejecting couples who are the wrong racial mix, too fat or who smoke, will be told there should be a presumption in favour of prospective parents. Guidelines will press local authorities to speed adoptions which can take three years from the time a child enters care.

A National Adoption Register is to be set up, to match children with possible families all over the country. An Adoption and Permanency Taskforce will tackle a backlog of 2,000 children waiting to be adopted, with 1,200 families waiting to adopt them.

The agency will have powers to deal with the worst councils, who place as few as 1 per cent of children in care with adoptive families, compared to 14 per cent in other areas. The aim is to increase the number of children going into adoption by 50 per cent in a year.

The authorities will be told the children should be adopted within two years to stop them being institutionalised.

But there will be a let-out clause allowing adoption agencies to refuse "inappropriate" parents. "The only vested interest will be the vested interest of the child," said a Whitehall source. "The correct thing to do is act in the child's interests. It is not about political correctness. It is about giving kids the right start in life."

The White Paper will be the most radical overhaul of adoption laws yet, and the aims to be set out by the Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, when he unveils the document will be permanence and stability for the child. William Hague, the Tory leader, had said the lack of a Bill in the Queen's Speech showed Tony Blair had reneged on a promise to legislate on adoption before the election. The White Paper will promise legislation, after the election.

The Tory MP for Meriden, Caroline Spelman, is expected to introduce her own backbench Bill closely following the White Paper to embarrass the Government, but ministers are not prepared to take over her Bill to see it reach the statute book.

"She should study our White Paper when it is published," said a government source.

Action was promised by the Government after a Cabinet Office review showed that the adoption system was bureaucratic and not working in the interests of children. The report by the Government's performance initiative unit said that delays in adopting were unacceptable.

An all-party Parliamentary group led by the Tory MP David Davis led calls for legislation after hearing some local authorities were refusing to co-operate in cross-border transfers of children in their care to parents in other council areas.

A third of children adopted may have been in care for more than three years. Children adopted in 1998-99 were 14 months when they went into care, and two-and-a-half years old before they were placed with adoptive parents, denying the family the chance to bond with the babies.

More than 55,000 children are in care of local authorities, mostly with foster parents. Around 2,200 children are adopted each year.