If Jack Straw needs further instruction on how adoption affects mother and son, Clare Short might be happy to oblige

Jack Straw, brought up by his mother after the collapse of his parents' marriage, must be presumed to know a bit about lone parenthood. Hence the initially muted reaction to his babies-to-go adoption scheme. Unlike Lady Thatcher, who favoured giving illegitimate children to the nuns, Straw side-slipped wholesale vilification for his suggestion that more teenage girls should hand over their infants to adoptive parents.

His arithmetic was persuasive: 3,500 children aged under two remain in council care, while would-be adopters wait in vain. His carping about "well-meaning but not very professional" social workers chimed with the populist mood. So there were few accusations of social eugenics dictated by the budget sheet, nor much hint that a "good homes wanted" policy, ideal for disposing of a glut of terrapins or a litter of kittens, might be less suitable for superfluous children.

But although his compassion and good intent are not in doubt, Straw's language was oddly chilling. Adoption, he said, should be presented to mothers who cannot care for their children as a "positive, responsible choice"; a phrase redolent if not of threat, then at least of emotional blackmail. Pregnant teenagers themselves favour abortion over adoption; an understandable preference suggesting little untapped enthusiasm for the Home Secretary's plans to cap a crisis.

Post-Pill and post-sexual revolution, the number of babies born to teenagers declined by a third, to 41,900 a year, over two decades. In the same period, the number of unmarried teenage mothers increased exponentially - to nine in every ten - while adoptions decreased from 25,000 to 6,000.

So the Straw swap shop makes sense, assuming you discount the following factors. The first is guilt, loss and sorrow, coupled with the mental problems suffered by a third of mothers who give up their babies. If Straw needs any further instruction on the bond between mother and child, Clare Short - reunited with the son she relinquished for adoption - might be happy to oblige.

Then there is the adoption process - tortuous, inefficient and skewed so that parents who have opted to give up their children retain undue influence over the legal process. A recent investigation showed that one London borough dealing with four infant adoptees expected a two-year delay before they were settled with new parents.

If Straw is talking large numbers, then the system shows no signs of being able to cope. And there are reasons to think big. Underlying a Dr Spockish concern about what's best for baby is a big drain on the public purse - supposedly solvable, once single mothers deemed (by whom?) unable to care for their children are persuaded that affluent homes are good and poor ones bad.

There is no guarantee of that. When the billionaire chairman of Revlon cosmetics tells a divorce court that he can feed his four-year-old daughter for £1.82 a day and offers a pro rata sum in maintenance, the good life looks tainted.

Of course there are fine prospective adopters, scouring the third world for children. But the scandal is not the shortage of supply in Britain. It is rather that some children are left in the dubious care of the state - the worst parent of all - because law and bureaucracy conspire against happy endings.

The government, however, has shown little appetite to iron out existing inequities in adoption - apart from some new guidance - or to address the needs of the childless, beyond interventions veering from the misguided to the draconian: a ban on paid surrogacy here, a cutback in fertility treatment there.

As for single mothers, the new strategy suggests a two-strand approach. The working families tax care credit and new childcare allowance, designed as a passport to work, were launched this week. Next week local authorities are to report on progress in creating one million extra daycare places.

How ominous that, just as some sensible policies should be coming to fruition, the Home Secretary announces strand two - the great baby giveaway. I last heard of such a policy at Christmas when an acquaintance, an elderly Catholic missionary, wrote to say that he was redistributing the infants of the poor and unmarried to good homes.

I was shocked by such an arcane practice, unaware that he might be a man ahead of his time; an evangelist of new Labour strategy, as piloted in the slums of Bangladesh.