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Adoption (Leave, Pay and Allowance Arrangements)

Volume 530: debated on Wednesday 29 June 2011

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

We come now to the 10-minute rule motion, for which the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) has been patiently waiting.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Follow that, as they say in all the best music halls.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision to equalise leave, pay and allowance arrangements for adoptive parents with those of parents whose children are born to them; to equalise eligibility for adoption leave and pay with that of maternity leave and pay; to equalise the rates of pay for the first six weeks of maternity leave and adoption leave; to equalise the entitlement to allowances for self-employed adopters and self-employed mothers; and for connected purposes.

I want to set out the current position, what these provisions would do and why the Bill is important. It all started in April this year, when I attended the annual delegates meeting of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and heard the impassioned speeches from delegates who asked for adoptive parents to be given the same statutory rights as parents who have children born to them. I thank Neil Clarkson of USDAW and Adoption UK for their help with the background information, and of course the Library.

The Bill is not about who can adopt and why; it is about how adopters are treated in relation to statutory pay and leave when they do. If they were treated equally, perhaps more would come forward. The issues in my Bill, however, have been effectively overlooked, falling through the gap between the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but I am pleased that the Government are currently looking at adoption, and the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who has responsibility for children and families, has assembled a ministerial advisory group. I hope it will consider the measures in the Bill as part of its discussions.

There also need to be improvements in the support available for adoptive parents. That could be achieved by improving training and awareness for teachers, psychologists, paediatricians, social workers and health visitors. As some adopters have found, it is important that there is a greater awareness among professionals of the particular challenges faced by these children and their families.

Briefly, the statutory background is as follows. It was only in 1999 that adopting parents in the UK had a statutory right to any leave to care for their children. The Employment Act 2002 and subsequent regulations introduced a statutory right to paid adoption leave analogous to statutory maternity pay and maternity leave. From April 2003, adopting parents were also entitled to a period of paid adoption leave when the child is first placed with a family. The Work and Families Act 2006 extended statutory adoption pay to 39 weeks from April 2007.

But statutory entitlements to adoption pay and leave are less than those for maternity pay and leave. The reasons for the differences were not specifically addressed in Committee debates. The Government arguably justify the differences on the ground of health, safety and welfare of women who have given birth, but adoptive parents face great challenges too in welcoming a new member of their family. They need time and support to bond with their child, and to understand the sometimes difficult background of their new child.

My Bill asks for the following. First, equal eligibility for maternity and adoption leave. Adoptive parents should be entitled to adoption leave irrespective of length of service, as are pregnant women. Pregnant women are entitled to a total of 52 weeks’ maternity leave, irrespective of their length of service—26 weeks’ ordinary maternity leave and 26 weeks’ additional maternity leave. The statutory entitlement for adoptive parents is also 52 weeks, but they must have completed 26 weeks’ continuous service with their employer.

Secondly, my Bill asks for equal rates of pay for the first six weeks of adoption and maternity leave. Statutory maternity pay is paid at 90% of the weekly average earnings for six weeks, and then the lower rate of statutory maternity pay or 90% of average earnings, whichever is the lower. But statutory adoption pay is paid at the lower rate throughout the 39 weeks of statutory adoption pay.

Thirdly, self-employed adopters should be eligible for a statutory allowance equivalent to maternity allowance. Self-employed adoptive mothers cannot access the equivalent of maternity allowance available to self-employed biological mothers.

What do some employers do now? Some employers have their own contractual policies, which make the entitlements more equal. Many civil service departments and agencies offer enhanced maternity leave and pay provision. But as Adoption UK has found out, many employers enhance maternity but not adoption packages, leading to double discrimination. I can give some examples.

At the Department for Work and Pensions, the eligibility for 52 weeks of adoption and maternity leave is equalised, as are levels of contractual maternity and adoption leave for employees with one year’s service. However, there is still a difference in the rate of pay for the first six weeks for those on the statutory package. At BIS, contractual adoption and maternity entitlements appear to be equalised: 52 weeks’ adoption leave and maternity leave are both entitlements regardless of the length of service. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office offers a statutory package, or contractual maternity/adoption pay, on full salary during 26 weeks’ ordinary maternity/adoption leave, subject to certain conditions including a year’s service. However, on the parliamentary estate, instead of matching the contractual maternity arrangements of six months on full pay, contractual adoption pay gives only two weeks on full pay. In an answer to me, the Department for Education says:

“All staff regardless of the length of service or appointment status are eligible for 28 weeks of maternity or adoption leave on full pay. All staff have the option to follow that with 24 weeks of unpaid maternity or adoption leave.”—[Official Report, 28 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 758W.]

What does the private sector do? I have heard from the John Lewis Partnership, which says that the eligibility for adoption leave still requires 26 weeks’ service. But it says:

“After a qualifying period of two years, we top up adoption pay to the partner’s contractual rate of pay for the first 14 weeks. We take exactly the same approach with maternity leave.”

The measures in the Bill are important, because it would show that society values adopters. There is a financial and social cost benefit of getting children out of care. In the 2009-10 financial year, around £3 billion was spent on looked-after children. That is a gross figure of £37,000 per child. The sad fact is that there are 64,400 children in local authority care in England. Only 3,200 were adopted during the year to 31 March 2010.

In conclusion, we should recognise and reward adopters, and show them that they are valued as parents, by equalising their entitlements to support. That would support the Government’s aim of increasing the number of adopters. The legislative changes are minor and the financial costs are minimal, and they are far outweighed by the benefits, in both the short and the long term. The changes that the legislation would make to the lives of adoptive parents would enable them to give their children the best start in their vital first year. Local authorities and adoption agencies placing children expect the new parents to take time off work of up to one year, and adoptive parents should be compensated in the way that birth parents are.

Perhaps the next child who is adopted and given a home will become the next Steve Jobs—inventor of the iPad, beloved of many Members—or the next KT Tunstall, the brilliant singer-songwriter; both those people were adopted. As Pablo Casals said:

“Each child is unique; each child is a marvel. We must all work hard to make the world worthy of its children.”

I am sure that the whole House agrees with that sentiment. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Valerie Vaz, Ann Coffey, Julie Elliott, Yvonne Fovargue, Richard Harrington, Keith Vaz, Julie Hilling, Margaret Hodge, Grahame M. Morris and Fiona O’Donnell present the Bill.

Valerie Vaz accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on 20 January 2012, and to be printed (Bill 212).