Education secretary Michael Gove announced new UK government guidelines on adoption today and attacked past limitations on sexual orientation, race and age.

Outlining the new guidance, he said that the number of children adopted had fallen in recent years and children spend an average of 21 months in care before being placed with a family.

Until 2002, gay couples could not adopt and past wisdom said that children should be placed with families of the same ethnic background.

This, Mr Gove said, meant that children were unduly waiting longer to be adopted.

He said: ”We said that this particular couple can’t adopt because, in the past, they might have the wrong sexuality, they might even have the wrong ethnic background.

”It could be that they’re too young, it could be that their social background doesn’t make for perfect match. That sort of thinking is social engineering of the worst kind.”

Mr Gove added: “Thousands of children are currently in the care system waiting to be adopted. Every day they wait is a day they’re denied the loving home all children deserve. But politically-correct attitudes and ridiculous bureaucracy keep many of those children waiting far too long.

“Edicts which say children have to be adopted by families with the same ethnic background, and which prevent other families adopting because they don’t fit leftwing prescriptions, are denying children the love they need.”

Between March 2009 and 2010, the number of children placed for adoption fell by 15 per cent.

Black children take on average over 50 per cent longer to be placed for adoption than children from other ethnic groups. Children over five are four times less likely to be adopted than those under five.

The guidance says that local authorities cannot deny children loving homes because would-be parents are of a different ethnic or cultural background.

It also says that children who have been overlooked for adoption in the past – because of disabilities or age – should be reconsidered.

Mr Gove, who was himself adopted at the age of four months, said: “I was given a second chance. And as a result of the love and affection, the stability and care that my parents gave me, all the opportunities that I subsequently had in life were there because they chose, at a critical moment in my life, to become my parents.”

Last month, adoption charity Barnardo’s said that there are currently more than 64,000 children in England’s care system but adoption rates are at a new low.

Chief executive Anne Marie Carrie encouraged more gay couples and individuals to come forward to help children.

Only 3.75 per cent of the 3,200 children adopted in England last year were adopted by gay couples, the charity said.