Age and race restrictions on adoptions to go

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Couples who want to adopt will be spared discrimination on the grounds of age or race under new rules being drawn up by ministers.

Couples who want to adopt will be spared discrimination on the grounds of age or race under new rules being drawn up by ministers.

John Hutton, a Health minister, will reveal the proposed changes at a seminar in Downing Street tomorrow. He is expected to say the Government is looking closely at how local authorities vet applicants who want to adopt.

The move will form part of a drive to find suitable families for children in care. There will also be a new national adoption register and counselling and education schemes for prospective adopters. However, a Downing Street spokeswoman dismissed reports that gay couples would be allowed to adopt.

While there were no plans to change a 1967 convention that prevented unmarried couples from adopting, there would be other changes to encourage adoption. In some areas mothers are told they are too old to adopt at the age of 35. In others, children must come from the same racial background as their adoptive parents. If necessary, a new law will be passed to implement the changes.

A Department of Health spokesman said there had even been cases in which couples had been refused permission to adopt because they supported private education or because they were too fat. He said: "Too few people are coming forward because they have concerns that they are not going to get through the selection process."

A review of the rules on adoption will revisit draft legislation published with all-party support in 1996, which failed to make the statute book before the 1997 general election.

The legislation would have made the needs of the child paramount in all decisions on adoption. The draft Bill also proposed a new complaints system, a welfare check list and an easier adoption procedure for foster parents. Some experts also predicted that the change would force more parents to give up their children for adoption because it would make the courts put the child's needs first even if parents opposed the move.

Ministers hope to reinstate the measures and also reduce the number of failed adoptions. They will offer education to prospective parents as well as post-adoption counselling.

Tony Blair will support the initiative at tomorrow's seminar with social services managers. In an interview with Red magazine, to be published next month, the Prime Minister said a big problem for adopters was that no one warned them of the problems they faced. "You have to let parents know what they are taking on, and put a support system around them," he said.

Ministers want a range of measures and have appointed a panel of 25 experts to draw up new draft guidelines on adoption. One of its members is Felicity Collier, chief executive of the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, who said that last year her organisation had 900 children referred to it but only 330 families. She said: "We will look at how you seek and recruit families. We don't want anyone excluded on arbitrary grounds."

Single people are allowed to adopt but if people in gay or unmarried relationships do so only one name can appear on the adoption certificate. Research among adoption agencies recently showed that 93 per cent of those accepted as adopters were married.

Ms Collier said social workers were too often criticised for their methods of selecting couples for adoption. Prospective parents often found questioning intrusive but in most cases the social workers' decisions were the right ones, she said.