Moves to make it easier for families to adopt children in care were set out by David Cameron yesterday as he vowed to sweep away the "life-wrecking bureaucracy" that thwarts efforts to find homes for vulnerable youngsters.
He promised to dismantle the "absurd barriers" against mixed-race adoption and announced that councils would be required to launch a nationwide hunt for homes if children could not be placed locally after three months.
Ministers believe the life prospects of children in care are dramatically boosted by being adopted, particularly when they are found a stable family at a young age.
Mr Cameron was speaking ahead of next week's launch of an "adoption action plan" designed to cut the numbers in care and slash the average time – currently two and a half years – it takes to place a child with new parents.
He said: "Young lives are being wasted while the process takes its toll – and the victims are some of the most vulnerable young people in our society. You can't put children's futures on hold while the system gets around to dealing with their case."
He announced legislation to stop social workers blocking the adoption of a child in care if a couple with an exact ethnic match cannot be found.
It will stress that the racial background of a suitable adopter should carry less weight than the importance of providing a stable home life. White British children are three times more likely than those with ethnic minority backgrounds to leave care through adoption.
Mr Cameron said: "It is shocking that black children take twice as long as white children to be adopted. We will tackle the absurd barriers to mixed-race adoption which trap many non-white children in care."
Families with provisional approval to adopt will in future be allowed to foster the children while they await final court permission for the adoption, meaning youngsters spend less time in care. And if a match with a suitable local family has not been found within three months, a child's local authority will be required to cast the net wider by adding his or her name to the National Adoption Register.
Anne Marie Carrie, the chief executive of Barnardo's, said: "Everyone should be mindful of the damage that is done the longer a child is without the love and stability of a permanent home and family. Matching the child with the right family is very important but the child's overwhelming need is for a consistently caring family, and ethnicity should not be used as a reason for delay."
Case study: 'I was so grateful that I was adopted'
Grace McNeil, 21, from Leicester, is a receptionist at a law firm
I was nine weeks old when I was adopted by my parents from an orphanage in Romania. It was at the time of the downfall of Nicolae Ceausescu. I think I'm a Romany Gypsy, but we're not 100 per cent sure. I've been told I came from quite a large family.
My parents are both white, and so is my sister Ruth, who's 24. I'd always known I was different – we don't look alike at all. At school, there was obviously some difficulty explaining that she was my sister, but since then it's been fine: I've kept the same friends, so I don't need to repeat myself.
When I left school at 18 I went travelling in Europe and I realised where my home is, and who my true family are. I was so grateful that I was adopted.
I think it's absolutely horrible that children are kept from adoption [because of race]. I was given such a good life, I've got a good job and such a nice family. There are so many kids out there in poverty: why not give them the best?