I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for this important debate.
Reforming Britain’s adoption system, to streamline and speed up the process of placing children in care with adoptive parents, has emerged as a significant policy issue for the Conservative-led Government. The Queen’s Speech included proposals for setting a new time limit on cases of children going into care, and stating that family courts should make a decision on whether a child should be taken from their parents and placed into care within six months. I called this debate today to show that I, and many of my colleagues, support that measure, and to explain why the reform is so necessary. I shall also outline how, although good in theory, the Adoption and Children Act 2002 is not working as well as expected. The Government are consulting on changes to legislation later this year, so this is an opportune time, prior to the consultation period, for MPs to feed into the debate.
The current English trend is worrying: only 58% of children on the register are adopted in less than 21 months. In the devolved Administrations, the figures are just as disturbing. In 2010, there were 5,000 children in care in Wales and only 230 adoptions; in Northern Ireland, there were 2,600 children in care and only 64 adoptions; and in Scotland, there were more than 15,000 children in care, with only 455 adoptions. That is a staggering indicator of how long it takes to adopt children.
On average, it takes one year and nine months to adopt a child, which is far too long. The time it takes has an impact on children. Studies have shown that if a child is not in a loving and stable home by their second birthday, that can cause a series of behavioural and attachment problems that are easily preventable if the adoption process is speeded up. The bureaucracy plaguing the system obviously affects children’s adoption eligibility, as the adoption of children aged five and over in care is at a worrying 5%. Government statistics show that 43% of all children who entered care in England in the past year were aged between 10 and 17.
I am pleased that the hon. Lady has secured the debate, which is on a subject very dear to my heart as I have two adopted children. Does she consider that the key point in her speech so far is the need for a stable and loving home as early as possible? Although adoption is one opportunity and a very important element in providing a stable and loving home, there are perhaps other ways to achieve that. Perhaps the Government would do well to consider how to achieve stable and loving homes, whether through adoption or other routes, as early as possible, and that, ultimately, that is the best way forward for all children.
I am sure that the Minister will respond to that when he winds up.
Of those children who entered care in England in the past year aged between 10 and 17, 80% were taken into care for the first time. Children of that age are hardly ever adopted. Adoptive parents mostly want to take home babies, and the slow pace of the process is ultimately letting down children who, as the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) said, could have been in loving and stable homes well before their fifth birthday. There is difficulty finding families to take older children, who often need extra support to overcome emotional and behavioural difficulties and provide much needed stability.
Although the number of children in care has been rising throughout the UK, there has been an overall decrease in the number of looked-after children placed for adoption. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that children in care do not have as good a start in life as children who were adopted out of care. Barnardo’s surveyed 66 young people aged between 16 and 21 who had been in care throughout their childhood: 80% had no GCSEs on leaving school and half had been in more than four care placements, and they were much more likely to be bullied or excluded from school. Although the survey tested only a small number of people, it still shows a worrying long-term trend for children failed by the extended bureaucracy of the adoption process.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing such an important debate to this Chamber. She is talking generally about delays, in addition to the bureaucracy and the unnecessary barriers, which she details so well. Does she agree that many local authorities are failing to perform properly and adequately—the percentage of children leaving care and getting into adoption ranges between 26% and 2%—and that that is unacceptable?
I certainly do. I will mention local authorities later. As a Government, we should and will be doing more to help the children failed by the extended bureaucracy of the adoption process.
The trends are disturbing, because the Adoption and Children Act 2002 was made law purely to improve such statistics. The Act aimed to
“improve the performance of the adoption service, and put children at the centre”
and to align adoption law with relevant provisions in the Children Act 1989, to ensure that the child’s welfare is the paramount consideration in all decisions relating to adoption. The measures were underpinned by the Government’s programme to improve the performance of the adoption service and promote greater use of adoption. The 2002 Act placed a duty on local authorities to maintain an adoption service, and established a register to suggest matches between children waiting to be adopted and approved prospective adopters. The Act also includes measures intended to tackle delays in the adoption process—the register is intended to reduce delay in matching children with adoptive families—along with measures to require courts to draw up timetables for resolving adoption cases without delay and give directions to ensure the timetable is adhered to.
The figures I mentioned earlier clearly show that the 2002 Act has not been working as well as we would have hoped. The previous Government were trying to implement the policies in the Act, but were a little ineffective. However, the policies that were and still are entirely necessary are still relevant. Statistics show that the number of children placed for adoption fell by 15% in 2009-10. The Act is now 10 years old. We really should have seen improvement by now.
Communication between Government and local authorities also needs to improve. Local authorities need to make more use of voluntary adoption agencies with experience in finding families for difficult-to-place children, to help reduce delay and break down barriers in the system.
On 23 February, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education spoke about the Government’s action plan for adoption and explained the issue. He was concerned about
“Low adoption numbers, delays and bureaucracy in the assessment process”.
I welcome the Government’s recently published plan, which addresses many flaws in an overly bureaucratic process that has deterred many potential adopters from coming forward, and has not always worked in the best interests of the child. I am happy that the Secretary of State is in touch with the public’s concerns about the issue and is taking the necessary steps to tackle it.
The Government have been proactive in their approach and in tackling this social issue. Local authorities will be required to reduce delays in all cases and will not be able to delay an adoption for the perfect match if other suitable people are available. The ethnicity of a child and the prospective adopters will, in most cases, come second to the speedy placing of a child in a loving home. Currently, fewer people from ethnic minorities come forward to adopt children, so there is a shortage, particularly among the black community. Social workers have previously put high importance on placing children with parents of similar ethnic backgrounds, if possible, but this Government recognise that placing a child in a loving and caring home is of paramount importance.
I agree with my hon. Friend, who has great expertise in this area.
Proposed changes to the legislation will make it easier for children to be fostered by approved prospective adopters while the courts consider the case for adoption. This will mean that they stay in one home with the same parents, who will be foster carers first and then adoptive parents if the court agrees to adoption. Furthermore, if a match is not found locally within three months of a child being recommended for adoption, local authorities will have to refer them to the national adoption register.
The Department for Education has published new adoption scorecards, which form part of the new approach to deal with delays in the system. The scorecards set performance thresholds that make clear the minimum expectations for timeliness in the adoption system. The previous system set targets and we all know where targets lead. Sometimes they resulted in people being placed in inappropriate adoption placements.
The Government will consult on a new six-month approval process for people wanting to adopt. I am pleased that a new Committee in another place will investigate the adoption process.
All these measures could have been implemented by the previous Government when the 2002 Act became law. The Children and Adoption Act 2006 covers some aspects of the adoption process, but the slowness of the process was not addressed. All the measures that the Government will set out now will be a rational response to a problem that should have been improved on years ago. I am pleased that the initiative to speed up the adoption process is now being taken.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Benton. I congratulate the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) on securing this debate, which is topical, particularly as the Government have stated their aim to do something about increasing the number of adopters. If the number of adopters is increased, fewer children will be in care and looked after. From Margate to Blackburn, what is happening to looked-after children is an important issue.
Getting children out of care has a financial, social and moral benefit. In the financial year 2009-10, some £3 billion was spent on looked-after children’s services in England. The gross cost per looked-after child is about £37,000. The sad fact, to reiterate what my hon. Friend said, is that more than 64,000 children were in local authority care in England as of 31 March 2010. Of those, only 3,200 were adopted in that year.
I think that all Members present want to try to ensure that adoptive parents get an equal say to that of birth parents. Many Members know that I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on the matter in the previous Session, but today I want to highlight separately that adoptive parents and birth parents are not treated equally. I shall deal first with the bad part, the legislation—sorry, but as a lawyer that is part of my bread and butter.
Only in 1999 did adoptive parents in the UK obtain a statutory right to any leave to care for their children. The Employment Act 2002 and the ensuing regulations introduced a statutory right to paid adoption leave that was analogous to statutory maternity pay and leave. Only from April 2003 were adopting parents entitled to a period of paid adoption leave when the child is first placed with the family. The Work and Families Act 2006 extended statutory adoption pay to 39 weeks, taking effect in April 2007.
Statutory entitlements to adoption pay and leave, however, are less than maternity entitlements. Hon. Members may not know that the reasons for the differences were never addressed in Committee. The Government might justifiably argue for those differences on the grounds of health and safety and the welfare of women who have given birth, compared with those who adopt, but adoptive parents also face great challenges when they welcome new members to their family. They, too, need the time to support and bond with their child and to understand the often difficult backgrounds which such children—especially older children—come from.
Adoptive parents have told me that they would like to see improvements in the support available to them. For example, training for teachers, psychologists, paediatricians, social workers and health visitors could be improved. Often, a child is placed, and people do not understand the difficulties that adoptive parents can have later on. We need to look at all the services, in the round.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that adoptive parents face a lot of issues because of the complex backgrounds of their children in earlier life. The problems she described are often difficult to tackle alone, and the adoptive parents need the support of trained professionals. Perhaps the Minister will address how such services can be protected and guaranteed in difficult financial times. I shall say nothing about cuts at this stage, but perhaps he will address that point when he sums up.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Sometimes an adopted child displays challenging behaviour to the adoptive parents, which they have to work with, in order to feel that they will not be left alone or abandoned. Greater awareness among professionals of the challenges faced by such children and their families is important. I have already mentioned my ten-minute rule Bill in the previous Session, and the Minister who is kindly present was helpful in meeting me to talk about different aspects of the Bill. I want, however, to highlight the three different areas in which I would like to see adoptive parents treated in exactly the same way as birth parents.
First, there should be equal eligibility for maternity leave and adoption leave. Adoptive parents should be entitled to adoption leave irrespective of length of service. Pregnant women are entitled to a total of 52 weeks of maternity leave, irrespective of their length of service— 26 weeks of ordinary maternity leave and 26 weeks’ additional maternity leave. The statutory entitlement for adoptive parents is also 52 weeks, but they must first have completed 26 weeks of continuous service with their employer.
Secondly, there should be equal rates of pay for the first six weeks of adoption leave and maternity leave. Statutory maternity pay is paid at 90% of the weekly average earnings for six weeks, then at whichever is the lower of statutory maternity pay or 90% of average earnings. Statutory adoption pay, however, is paid at the lower rate throughout the 39 weeks.
Thirdly—this is a big gap, which does not amount to much money or a huge number of people—self-employed adopters, the very people who might be in a position to adopt children, should be eligible for a statutory allowance equivalent to maternity allowance.
Self-employed adoptive mothers cannot access the equivalent of maternity allowance, which is available to self-employed biological mothers. The maternity allowance is paid for a maximum period of 39 weeks, so it is important.
Some Departments are extremely good, and some employers—even in the private sector—have equalised contractual entitlements for adopters and biological parents. For example, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are good and have equalised entitlements. Sadly, however, for House of Commons staff who adopt, only two weeks’ full pay and then statutory adoption pay are available.
Those would be three simple measures: on length of service; on the rate of pay during the first six weeks of leave; and on self-employed adopters with no access to maternity allowance or an equivalent benefit. No adoptive parent adopts for the money, but they deserve to be treated equally. If they were, more would come forward and fewer children would be classified as looked after. Equalising would send a message out to adopters that they are undertaking a valuable job.
The hon. Member for South East Cornwall touched on the issue of speed, but we must have a balance: we should not just look at different ways of speeding up the process, but ensure that the proper inquiries are made. I hope to continue my discussions with Ministers on equalising the rights of adoptive parents with those of birth parents. Statutory maternity pay is now part of the very fabric of society and we all take it for granted, but rights cannot be seen as rights unless they extend to everyone equally. I hope that the Minister will act so that adoptive parents are valued for what they do, which is to provide a home for children in desperate need of a loving and nurturing family.
I, too, take the opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) on securing this important debate. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) on introducing the ten-minute rule Bill in the previous Session. When constituents have approached me about adoption matters, she has been helpful when I have turned to her for information and advice.
Adoption issues affect people the length of Britain, whether they are children trapped in the care system or people desperate to adopt. However, for many reasons, which my hon. Friend has already examined, children in care and prospective adoptive parents face lengthy delays in the process. Over the past two years, as a constituency MP, I have been made aware of a number of adoption cases, both the very positive and some in which problems have been encountered. I can recall in detail each case that has arisen, because they are deeply personal and highly emotional. I welcome any further assistance that can be provided to my constituents through improved legislation or, at least, clearer lines of communication for families who wish to adopt and for those who have adopted children but later encounter difficulties—in particular, within the education system.
I pay tribute to Hampshire county council, which, whenever I have approached it on the subject, has responded with speed, efficiency and, most importantly, compassion. The publication of the adoption score card showed Hampshire to be meeting Government thresholds on the time taken between a child entering the care system and moving in with an adopted family. The director and the deputy director of Hampshire children’s services are active and supportive members of the Government’s implementation group for the adoption action plan, while the Hampshire adoption service is part of the pilot programme for the new prospective adopters plan.
Nationally, however, only 58% of children on the register are adopted in less than 21 months. Studies clearly show that children are likely to suffer from behavioural difficulties if they are not placed in a loving and stable home before their second birthday. That target is met for fewer than two thirds of children, so more work clearly needs to be done. I am painfully aware of evidence to suggest that the most important period of a child’s life is the first 1,000 days—not from birth, but from conception. That is when a child learns to empathise, establishes key patterns of behaviour and comes to understand feelings of love and affection and, sadly, in some cases, of loneliness and abandonment.
Locally, I am pleased that 84% of children who were adopted in 2011 in Hampshire were placed for adoption within 12 months. A quick turnaround is essential for the children’s development, because the longer they remain in care, the less likely they are to be placed permanently with an adoptive family or to have a good chance of succeeding later in life.
This afternoon, hon. Members have said that adopters are often faced with considerable challenges. I highlight particularly the case of one of my constituents who has worked extremely hard to care for two children who had suffered considerable neglect in their early years. Sadly, the children consistently manifest very demanding and complex behaviour, but my constituent has persevered, with admirable patience and determination. She freely confesses that she needs more support from professionals who understand the exact disorders that the children have. Indeed, she has been dismayed that some of the support workers whom she has met do not have expert knowledge, especially of attachment disorder, from which many children in the care system suffer. I should be grateful for the Minister’s comments on what further training might be made available to educate those who work in the field about how to recognise those complex disorders and to provide the necessary support, both to children and to adopters. In those very trying situations, it is essential that the best possible support is available for all.
It is critical to note that, in Hampshire, requests for adoption support needs assessment by adoptive parents rose from 105 in 2010-11 to 150 in 2011-12. The number of parents seeking support has increased by nearly 50% in one year alone. It is obvious to all that it is in everyone’s best interests—parents, children and the professionals—that support exists to keep placements working.
Unfortunately, some children have to re-enter the care system because their behavioural problems are too severe for adoptive parents. I should be grateful for the Minister’s comments on what further steps are being taken, when there is no other alternative, to make the transition back into care as smooth as possible and in the least distressing way for the child and parents. The parents often have unique insight and understanding of the child’s condition, and it is essential that they are given the opportunity to explain to the local authority the difficulties that the child is experiencing.
I want to conclude on a happier note. There are many examples of adoption working well. I am thinking in particular of a couple living in my constituency who have just adopted a second child, after having successfully cared for their first adopted child for a number of years. There are many reasons why couples are childless, just as there are many reasons why children need new adoptive homes. I will never forget my constituents’ relief when they were finally approved, or the joy on their faces when their adopted son first arrived, but perhaps the greatest testament is the happiness that they now experience as a family.
As ever, it is a pleasure to speak in what I think everyone agrees is a profoundly important debate. As chair of the all-party group on adoption and fostering, I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) on securing this opportunity to debate adoption again. As ever, it would be more useful for those of us who have a passion for adoption if the interest shown by hon. Members in this Chamber were shared more widely when broadcasting what goes on in Parliament. Certainly, the debate that I have come from, which was on professional standards in the banking industries, was in stark contrast with this debate. My hon. Friend made a well-crafted and pertinent speech.
I thank the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who made thoughtful contributions. They are more than welcome to join us and to see what we do with around 150 young children who come to the all-party group on looked-after children and care leavers and the professionals who come to the all-party group on adoption and fostering. I am sure their presence would make a great difference to our work.
I must declare an interest as a compassionate Conservative and as someone with two adopted brothers. Last time that we debated adoption back in November 2011, I explained the deep and powerful impact that adoption has had on my family and on me personally, and the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) has told us today about his experience as an adopter. It is important that people realise that expertise in Parliament ensures that adoption is understood professionally and personally.
There is no doubt that, irrespective of the many moments of stress, frustration and, yes, on occasion, sheer blind panic, the adoption of Oliver and Henry into our family has been enriching, rewarding, sobering, but, above all, immensely satisfying. Perhaps that is why I subscribe strongly to the notion that adoption should play a vital role in the lives of many more children and families. It could be argued that that has been the settled consensus for some time. In 2000, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, ordered a major policy review of adoption services for looked-after children throughout the UK, with the primary aim of addressing whether there should be more use of adoption as a permanency option for children in care and whether the process could be improved in the interest of the children.
The hon. Gentleman’s work on the issue has impressed me and many others since he first arrived here in 2008. Will he address the point of how to get more adopters and whether he accepts my premise that one of our big problems is that fewer people have put themselves forward as potential adoptive parents?
I will come to that later in my speech, but the hon. Gentleman’s earlier point was about ensuring that people understand that adoption is not an exclusive form of permanency for children; it is not the only one. It is important in every child’s case to make sure that the final decision about where and with whom they will spend the rest of their life is based solely on their personal circumstances and needs, not on statistics. It is also important that we consider whether the opportunity for adoption being available and open to more prospective adopters is used as much as possible. Certainly, the surge in interest during national adoption week from people who had an inkling or a desire to be adopters in the future demonstrated to me that there is an appetite out there for people to come forward as adopters. We must do more to make sure not only that we give them that opportunity, but that we then follow it through, and do not leave them hanging and waiting for a decision to be made on their behalf. That is very much at the heart of what the Government’s action plan on adoption is trying to achieve.
The conclusion of the previous Government’s work in 2000-01 was that we should promote an increase in adoption, and there was scope to increase the number of adoptions from care each year. As we have heard, that led to the Adoption and Children Act 2002, coupled with a drive to improve the effectiveness and delivery of adoption services. Initially, that bore fruit, but within five years of the legislation hitting the statute book, the number of adoptions had begun to fall back, and since then the trend has been downward.
It is fair to say that, despite the previous Government’s best intentions, the 2002 Act has not had the desired effect, and its momentum has been lost. So what can we do? First and foremost, it is crucial to remember that adoption is only one route to permanency for a child in care, as I have alluded to and as the hon. Member for Sefton Central has said. As I have said in previous debates on adoption, it is not the right option for every child, but I am certain that there is still under-representation of adoption in the overall mix of permanency plans for looked-after children.
It is important to note that the Prime Minister has made it clear that improving the lives of children in care is a national priority, and I could not agree more. As part of that commitment, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Education, who was adopted, and the Minister are adamant that the adoption system needs to work much more efficiently and much more effectively. The added determination and doggedness of Martin Narey, the Government’s adoption adviser, to effect change is extremely welcome.
As we have heard, adoption is just one part of an overall child protection and care system that is in need of far-reaching reform, and that is borne out by the excellent Munro review that is being implemented by the Government. Part of the solution for improving the adoption process and service available is to ensure that the care system from which children who are to be adopted emerge is as child-focused, efficient, skilled and professional as possible. By accepting the proposals in Eileen Munro’s report, the Minister has set himself and all those working with children in care the difficult but necessary task of turning those recommendations into real and durable reform of both the culture and the practice on the ground where it really matters.
It is equally important that the adoption system does not get left behind. I therefore welcome wholeheartedly the root-and-branch approach taken by the Minister to improve our adoption system by leaving no stone unturned and by being willing to face the often difficult challenges of bringing about systematic and attitudinal change. The adoption process remains too bureaucratic, exclusive rather than inclusive and liable to set up too many adoptions to fail. In just two years, however, the Government have already made significant progress in confronting those endemic problems.
As a member of the ministerial advisory group on adoption, which has been helping to shape policy, it would be surprising if I did not support the wide-ranging and carefully targeted reform of the system on which the Government are embarking. Much of that has already been touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall and includes “An Action Plan for Adoption”, which was published recently, and new adoption scorecards to hold local authorities to account and help tackle underperformance with swifter interventions. The revised and streamlined six-month approval process for prospective adopters will help deal with many of the problems identified by the hon. Member for Sefton Central in trying to ensure that prospective adopters come forward and do not feel let down by the process or get so frustrated that they walk away and we lose some potentially excellent adopters.
The hon. Gentleman is making some good points. I am also concerned that, when prospective adopters come forward, they are given information that says, “Come and have a family,” and a rosy picture is painted. Sometimes—not always—the potential difficulties are not explained and people are perhaps given a false perspective in the first place. Does the hon. Gentleman think that, on occasion, a slightly more honest approach would help to achieve what he is setting out?
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important and valid point. Many adopters enter the adoption process with a rose-tinted view of what they are letting themselves in for, and it is important that at as early a stage as possible they are given not only support but information and training from professionals working with them. They must be left under no illusion about the long and often hard road ahead—of which the hon. Gentleman and myself are probably all too aware—and the last thing that we want is to give people a false impression that results in an adoption breakdown. Ultimately, the child is the person who loses out more than anyone else, and they should always be put at the centre of every decision that we make.
The Government are considering the introduction of a national gateway for adoption. That important initiative would provide a first point of contact for anyone interested in adoption. I encourage all Members to read the action plan because it sets out detailed proposals to accelerate the whole adoption process, taking into account the point raised by the hon. Member for Walsall South about the need to qualify and quantify every aspect of that adoption and not view it purely on the basis of time constraints. We must ensure that we always get the right decision.
We must also improve the recruitment of prospective adopters and enhance support to adoptive families before, during and—crucially—after an adoption. I will say a little more about the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North on adoption support, which is critical to the success of an adoption.
I welcome the priority that the Government are placing on adoption, which is backed up by the actions being taken. There is however, as I know the Minister is aware, much more work to do. I should like to mention many areas, but I will touch briefly on two—adoption support and the role of voluntary adoption agencies.
Proposals for adoption support are in their early stages of development, but we know that the day on which the placement or adoption order is made is not the day on which the troubles and traumas that resulted in the child entering care in the first place suddenly dissipate into thin air. As one adopter said:
“we don’t know what impact the children’s history will have on them as they grow and come to terms with their past.”
It is difficult to be precise about adoption breakdown rates. The Department for Education has commissioned Bristol university to dig down into that issue and consider the reasons for adoption breakdown. We know, however, that without meaningful and enduring adoption support, adoption placements have a greater risk of breaking down—that was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North.
Earlier this year, Adoption UK carried out research into adoption support. Among other things, it found that two thirds of prospective adopters did not feel that they understood the importance of adoption support, and that is troubling in itself. A similar number of people were unaware of their entitlement to adoption support services, and although twice as many adopters said that their adopted child or children had special needs that required greater support services, fewer than half were receiving any form of adoption support, let alone support commensurate with the needs of their child.
Although under the current law all adopters have the right to be assessed for support, they have no right to that need for support being fulfilled in the long term. The current three-year support cut-off point is perhaps too arbitrary—and in many cases too short—and prevents local authorities from committing to the long-term support that may be necessary. That can often lead to an unnecessary breakdown of the placement.
The proposal in the action plan is for an adoption passport, which in essence is a transparent guarantee of the minimum support that adoptive families will receive. That is a step in the right direction, particularly if it ensures priority access to child and adolescent mental health services, for example, or parenting courses to help prospective adopters understand what attachment is and how it may manifest itself with the child placed with them. Potentially, the role of adoptive families may be recognised in the tax and benefits system—that is linked to those areas mentioned with great force by the hon. Member for Walsall South.
One way to improve adoption support would be to enhance the role of voluntary adoption agencies. Their excellent results in delivering successful adoptions with fewer breakdowns is, in large part, due to the greater and more long-standing support given to VAA-approved adoptive families. A report by Dr Julie Selwyn from Bristol university confirmed that VAAs have a better track record in terms of post-adoption support, and VAA-approved adoptive families were found to receive twice as much support from family placement workers as families approved by local authorities.
Local authorities have been reluctant to use VAAs because of their perceived extra cost. That has been shown to be inaccurate, however, and the cost of a VAA sourcing and matching a child is comparable to the cost to the local authority. It also fails to take into account the much lower breakdown rate for placements made through VAAs. With many local authorities feeling the squeeze on their own adoptive support services—a point that the hon. Member for Sefton Central was starting to bring into the debate—there is clearly ample scope for closer partnership working between local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies to improve adoption services, and that includes support, as amply demonstrated by the partnership between the London borough of Harrow and Coram.
Ultimately, this debate is about the need for a child-centred adoption system that we can be confident is delivering for children. The Government have made important commitments and pushed hard to meet that shared objective. There is still a long way to go, but it is a good start.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I very much welcome the debate. I place on the record my particular thanks to the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), and to the Backbench Business Committee for working so hard to secure it. I share the view expressed by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson): adoption is one of the most important subjects that we can debate in this place.
Adoption is also an area on which there is largely cross-party agreement. The previous Government increased the funding for adoption, set out new standards and introduced targets for adoption numbers. That led to an increase, but sadly, as many hon. Members said, that has not been sustained, and the system has at times fallen well short of what children deserve.
I am grateful to Martin Narey, whom I had the privilege and pleasure of working closely with when he ran the Barnardo’s children’s charity, for his thoughtful report on this issue and all the work that he has done since. I recognised the truth of much of what he said. I also recognise the characteristic energy with which he has gone about ensuring that this issue is at the centre of the children’s agenda. Therefore, I hope that if I express some concerns to the Minister in my response to the debate, he will take them in the constructive spirit in which they are intended.
The Minister and I agree that removing delay from the adoption system is important. Children have consistently said, for so many years, that there is too much waiting in the system. It has been consistently said in consultations over a decade that making the process quicker is their top priority. That has gone on far too long, and I am genuinely pleased that the Government are doing something about it.
Timing, though, as many hon. Members said, is not just about speed. It is not just about going faster or slower. Some things, such as paperwork and the courts system, need to be done or to function faster, but other things may well need to be done more slowly, in children’s interests. I was struck by one of the comments in the Children’s Rights Director’s report from 2006. One child said that they needed
“more time to say goodbye to everyone.”
Meeting children and listening to their views more recently, I have also heard such comments; they are echoed over and over down the years.
The Minister may remember the discussion group that he held, orchestrated by the children’s rights groups, about his adoption plan. The young people involved felt that sometimes the trial period with the adoptive parents was too short, and it was difficult to form a proper view, so although I echo the comments that have been made about timely placements, I emphasise timeliness, and not just speed. We cannot have speed at the expense of getting it right. I therefore ask the Minister to recognise that there is concern outside this place about the six-month target.
I agree with what my hon. Friend says about striking the right balance, in terms of speed. I have just one additional point on that. The process whereby prospective adopters learn what they need to know cannot be rushed. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson) made this point very well. It takes time and a lot of training to understand what adoption involves and to be ready to adopt. That certainly cannot be rushed, and it certainly needs proper resources.
I agree. My hon. Friend knows better than most just how much it takes to do something so enormous—to welcome children into one’s own family or, on the other side, to join a new family and deal with all the confusion that that brings. I will talk about that some more, but in the meantime I thank my hon. Friend for his contributions to today’s debate.
I say to the Minister that there is real concern outside this place about what the six-month target may mean in practice. In addition, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services has spoken out in the strongest terms against the 12-month target; if councils do not hit it, they cannot be rated outstanding. It has been my experience over the last decade or so outside this place—I am sure that it has also been the Minister’s experience—that targets can and do produce perverse incentives if they are not constructed well, not monitored and not changed when they are shown to be too blunt or less intelligent than we would like. Can the Minister tell us how, if the Government press ahead with the six-month and 12-month targets, he will monitor that to ensure that it does not lead to perverse outcomes for children, as the hon. Member for South East Cornwall said?
Especially where siblings are concerned, there may be valid reasons for the process being slower. I understand that it is not always in children’s best interests to remain with their siblings. Nevertheless, the pain of such a separation can last for the rest of a child’s life. I have heard so many children talk about that over the years, and I am sure that the Minister has, too. They simply did not know what they had done to deserve it. We owe it to children to do everything that we can to keep siblings together, where that is in their best interests. Targets must not be allowed to prevent that.
Many children say that one of the crucial things about adoption placements is that they feel that they have an element of control over the placement. Many children—not all, but many—say that they want choice; they want some say on their new family. Every child is unique. Religion, race or culture might not matter at all to some; they might be very important to others. The Minister is striking a good balance on that issue, but it brings me back to the perennial problem of the need to increase the supply of potential adopters—a point talked about by many hon. Members—and especially the supply of potential adopters who can care for children who currently wait far too long for placements, such as children with disabilities. I, too, welcome the adoption gateway, but I share the concerns of the Local Government Association that in focusing more—and rightly so—on the prospective adoptive parents, we must be very careful not to lose sight of the needs and interests of the children.
Does the hon. Lady agree that initiatives such as national adoption week, which have really taken off and have real momentum behind them, are a vital part of the drive towards prospective adopters being identified and being able to commence their journey, and thus are central to improving adoption rates in this country?
The hon. Lady is right to highlight that. National adoption week plays an incredibly important role in raising awareness of adoption and flagging it up to potential families as something that they may not have considered before but may consider in the future. Of course, what happens to those potential parents next is also incredibly important, as I know she recognises.
Although I take the point about adoption week, I would like to make the point that, as councillors are corporate parents of looked-after children, they have a specific responsibility, and their role is crucial in ensuring that adoptions happen quicker. I would like to see all local authorities and all councillors ensuring that every week is an adoption week.
I welcome that intervention and would be interested to hear the Minister’s response to it. Like many other hon. Members here, I was a local authority councillor before I came to this place, and it caused me great concern that the extremely heavy duty placed on councillors as, in effect, the parents of children in the looked-after system is not well understood by the majority of councillors. We need urgent action to tackle that.
In the 2006 Children’s Rights Director’s report on children’s views of adoption, children said that the best thing about being adopted was joining a new family; the worst was leaving their old one. One child described adoption as
“a scary, sad and happy experience”.
That sums up better than I could, especially as I did not go through this process as a child, how confusing and difficult an experience adoption can be, even when it brings great excitement and joy.
I think that everyone now recognises that there is a pressing need for ongoing support—practical, emotional and sometimes financial—for adoptive parents. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) talked about that very eloquently. I look forward to the Minister’s response on the issue. That support, not just for adoptive parents but for children, is essential to prevent adoption placement breakdown. Before the debate, Barnardo’s made the point that the support should be able to continue beyond three years, particularly where children are teenagers and going through many of the difficulties that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich described. I am talking about children coming to terms with what has happened to them, sometimes long after the event, and deciding how they feel about it.
Children speak powerfully about the trauma of placements failing. Some children told the Children’s Rights Director that they felt that they were responsible for trying to make their adoptive placements work out. One child said:
“I felt that if anything went wrong it would be my fault”.
Sometimes we seriously underestimate the amount of responsibility that children take for the decisions that are made that affect them, so ongoing support could not be more important. I look forward to seeing more details of the adoption passport when they are announced. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether that will be part of the announcements tomorrow. In the meantime, I agree with the Local Government Association that funding is an issue. It says that local authorities face cuts of up to 28% in social services budgets. If the adoption passport is not fully funded, it will remove funding from elsewhere in children’s services, which children can ill afford, especially given that the social worker is the critical person in the process.
It should be of deep concern to us all that when children are asked what the worst thing about being adopted is, many still say that it is their social worker. In all my recent meetings with children who have been through the care system, they have talked about social work turnover. It is often not a criticism of the individual, but a criticism of the amount of time that a social worker is able to give them, or of the fact that they have had two, three or four social workers in as many months. With budgets under pressure and higher case loads, that could be a real problem.
As we heard from many Members, children need time, information and a sense of control. They often need to be given information over and over again, because, as anyone who has ever worked with children knows, sometimes they are just not capable of taking it in, particularly information of this kind. Time is therefore precious, which brings me back to getting it right for children.
We need to consider adoption as part of the wider system. We know that adoptions are not always the right solution for children. There is no hierarchy of placement where children are concerned. I want to quote something from the Children’s Rights Director’s report, because it is so powerful:
“children have strongly told us that fostering is one thing, being adopted is quite another, your plans should be for which of these is best for you as an individual, and adoption shouldn’t be put forward for anyone just because councils want to get as many children adopted as possible.”
That is set against the backdrop of issues in fostering, including allowances and supply. According to the Fostering Network, a foster placement is needed every 22 minutes. Due to the shortage of foster families, almost two thirds of local authorities have had to split up siblings who are in care over the past year. Allowances to foster carers are not keeping pace with inflation, and, in some instances, are falling below the national minimum recommended by the Government. The Fostering Network says that the situation is particularly bad in Scotland, where the Government have set no minimum rate.
There is concern outside this place that progress on adoption is detracting from the pressure points elsewhere in the system. I am sure that the Minister agrees that there is no reason why that should be the case. We can, and should, look at the system as a whole. When will the Government publish the eagerly awaited plans, expected this summer, to improve the system for all looked-after children?
Finally, it is a glowing tribute to professionals and adoptive families that, when asked, so many children say that there is no worst thing about being adopted. One child said that knowing that they could stay for ever if they wanted to was the best thing about it. That so many front-line professionals are clearly getting it right should be a source of real encouragement to all of us, as we seek, collectively, to do better.
We have had a well balanced and measured debate. It was slightly less heated than the one going on in the main Chamber at the moment, which may interrupt our deliberations. I add my congratulations to those that others have given my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) on the way that she made her case, acknowledging that the Government need to get on with it and do more, but also that we have undertaken a radical and substantial overhaul of our whole system for looking after children in care, with a particular focus on those who will benefit from adoption and those who could benefit, but are not being considered for it now.
I have a long speech, but first I will take up some of the points that were made, and we shall see how far the Division bell eats into our time. Issues in adoption have not just happened in the past two years under the current Government. In opposition, we had a long-standing interest in improving the adoption situation. I was on the Committee on the Adoption and Children Bill, which became the 2002 Act. The legislation was well intentioned, but some good reforms that it introduced were not sustained and they fizzled out. I am determined that our adoption reforms will last and that an increased number of children, for whom adoption is appropriate, will benefit from it in a more timely manner.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
As I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted by the main Chamber, the Government have taken adoption seriously for a long time. It is helpful that we have the commitment of the Prime Minister, of my Secretary of State, who has great personal experience of adoption, and of Martin Narey, the Government’s adoption adviser, who was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson). All three have given the campaign great impetus.
I assure the House that everything we are doing is not just about improving processes, effectiveness and efficiency, but about getting better placements and better outcomes for children in care generally, and for those for whom adoption is appropriate, who will always be the minority. As the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) said—it is good to see him here today, off his crutches—the Government have been doing a wide range of things across the piece for children in care, including a better deal for foster carers and for children in foster care, special guardianship orders, and this week’s announcements about children in residential homes. For us, there is no hierarchy of forms of care.
I want to pick up some of the points made. I have a deal of sympathy with the measures that the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) tried to introduce via her ten-minute rule Bill. She mentioned our meetings with colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; she is absolutely right to say that there is financial, social and moral benefit to be gained from getting children out of care, and that we spend a lot on the whole area.
Adoptive parents face challenges, and we must ensure that they have help with them. The worst possible denouement for a child can be when an adoption breaks down, and various Members have stressed the importance of adoption support services, an importance that I absolutely see. We are doing a lot of work in that area, and there will be further announcements throughout the year. We do not want false economy. It is common sense that if one does not put in the work pre, during and post-adoption, a placement is less likely to stick, particularly if the child involved brings with them lots of baggage, emotional trauma or abuse. We need to devote appropriate love, attention and professional care to ensuring that such children can recreate the kinds of empathetic relationships—attachment, which my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) also mentioned—that are so lacking in their lives and that place them at such a disadvantage.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North made a number of good points. Hampshire has an excellent track record, and I was with the director of children’s services, John Coughlin, only this morning. He has done much to support the heavy lifting that the Government have been doing, and we need to do more, to understand how we can recreate attachment and deal with the behavioural problems of many children who are appropriate for adoption. We must ensure that professionals recognise those special needs, and we are working with the College of Social Work and the Social Work Reform Board so that there is a better understanding of the problems faced by children in the care system, particularly those related to attachment.
Awareness of attachment is growing, but we need to do an awful lot more. The figures that my hon. Friend cited of the number of parents in her area who now seek adoption support shows what a false economy it would be not to recognise that such support is needed and do something about it.
The Minister makes an important point about the better understanding of attachment. The issue is incredibly important, and needs to be addressed. It is also important to have professionals with long-term experience, and to find ways of ensuring that we not only attract but retain high-quality staff in the profession, including foster carers, so that their expertise can be built up over many years. There is no substitute for long-term experience.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. This is not just about training the professionals and raising awareness among them; it is about raising awareness among parents, as well as children, as to what attachment is all about. We can do that through training, but we can also do it by spending £4.99 on a very good little book that has been authored and published by the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich. The book is about attachment and it is written in layman’s terms. It is a really good aid to try to get people involved in the process to understand the heavy, technical areas involved. I recommend the book to the hon. Member for Sefton Central and might even give him a free copy, because I have been provided with a number of samples.
I do not really need to speak, because the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, who has great expertise in the area—more than anybody else in Parliament, I think—summed it up very well. It is always a privilege to hear his take on the subject. He has been hugely helpful with his work on the all-party group on adoption. It is always a challenge for someone to go into a crowded room full of experienced young people who want to challenge them and keep them on their mettle. My hon. Friend, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee), has also had input in the ministerial advisory group, and we have recently been joined by Baroness King, a former Member of this House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, adoption is an enriching and rewarding experience, not only for the adoptee, but for the family who take in a new family member.
The role of voluntary adoption agencies is crucial. We have a lot to learn from their great expertise and success rate in finding adopters and making sure that adoptions are appropriate, work and last, which is why we are doing a lot of work with them. We must remember that we are trying to deliver child-focused services and to achieve child-focused outcomes, not just trying to make the system work better.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), who is no longer in the Chamber, said that councils have a responsibility all year around, not just for Christmas or for adoption week. I am sure that many of the directors of children’s services I have been with over the past 24 hours at their conference in Manchester would agree with that. They would probably also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash that it is important to raise the profile of adoption. This debate is part of that process, as are various other campaigns.
As Minister with responsibility for children, I have a responsibility to make sure that we do a lot better for thousands of children who enter care through no fault of their own. My first priority is to make sure that we support vulnerable families to stay together, but if the safety or well-being of a child is threatened, the next step must be to urgently bring them into care. Most children in care will, rightly, return to their families when it is safe for them to do so. Others will need a period in foster care or in a children’s home, but for some there will not be a realistic prospect of growing up with their birth parents or other family members. In such circumstances, adoption can be a lifeline and offer a vulnerable child the hope of a better future and a second chance in a loving, stable family, which is something that every child deserves.
The Government are determined to see more children considered for adoption, but, as I have said, they will always be a small minority. Even if we doubled the number of children who are adopted—I am not in any way setting a target—they would still amount to fewer than 10% of the children who are in care in this country at present. The children we want considered for adoption include those who, in many cases, have been overlooked in the past, particularly older children, kids with disabilities and children in sibling groups, who are a particular challenge; we have to do much better to try to keep sibling groups together, if possible, and find placements for them. We need a special kind of foster or adoptive carer to come forward and take on those responsibilities. When adoption is right for a child, we want and need it to take place without delay, because we know only too well the detrimental impact that delay can have on a child’s development. As my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North said, the first 1,000 days are key. My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall mentioned the crucial early years. The sooner a child has an appropriate adoption placement, the more likely it is to work and the more likely it is that attachment will click.
Over the past couple of years, a great many things have been going on, a few of which I have mentioned. Revised statutory adoption guidance for adoption agencies has been issued, and we have established an adopters’ charter, which sets out clear principles on how prospective adopters should be treated. I developed the charter with a group of young people who have been adopted and who come to see me regularly. I meet similar groups of children who are in foster care or residential care, and young people who have recently left care. I get some of my best information from those kids. They tell it like it is. It is always a joy, and a challenge, to have them in my office and get their input. Our whole work in this area has been hugely informed by the experience of the child, and it is absolutely right that it should be.
We have worked with Ofsted on strengthening the inspection regime. I had breakfast with its deputy director this morning and we talked about the new regime being introduced by Ofsted to make sure that we inspect the right things in adoption, so that it is all about the outcomes for children and not about processes. We have announced changes to the schools admissions code, which will mean that children who were previously looked after but who left care through adoption, or a special guardianship order or residence order, will retain the same priority for school places that they had as looked-after children. That is essential in trying to narrow the scandalous gap in achievement between children in the care system and their peer group.
We have published children in care and adoption tables, which show wide variation between local authorities in the number of adoptions and the timeliness of placements. The tables have led more recently to adoption scorecards, which I will come to in a moment.
Everything that we are trying to achieve is not pie in the sky, because it is happening in certain parts of the country. I need everybody who has a responsibility in children’s services to up their game and try to emulate the performance of the best for their children in care.
We have commissioned research into the number of adoptions that break down and the reasons behind that, because the last thing an adopted child needs, as my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall mentioned, is to be returned to care. We have published an adoption action plan in which we set out our proposals for tackling delay in the adoption system, including a new, shorter, two-stage approval process for prospective adopters and a new national gateway for adoption, on which we will provide further details at a later stage.
We desperately need more people to adopt. At the moment, too many people who pluck up the courage—it is a huge ask—to knock on the town hall door or pick up the phone and say, “I’m interested in becoming an adoptive parent,” are told, “Don’t call us; we’ll call you.” We should be grabbing those people by the throat and saying, “Fantastic—we’ve been waiting for you! Let’s talk you through the process and see whether it’s for you or not,” and, if it is appropriate, then for goodness’ sake let us get them into the assessment process and not put obstacles in their way. Let us do the checks as speedily and as thoroughly as possible, and then let us have them as prospective adopters and see if we can find a suitable child to match with them. That message goes out loud and clear from everything that the Government are doing; we need more people to come forward. It is a big ask but as everybody present with experience of adoption has shown, it is a hugely satisfying achievement, not only for those who adopt, but for the child who is being offered a home and who, in so many cases, has been through an awful lot.
We are making good progress in delivering the action plan commitments. Alas, I have only two minutes left, so I will not be able to give them in full, but we are developing the scope and remit of the gateway, which we hope to launch later this year. We will consult in September on changes to the new adopter approval process and a new fast-track approval process for previous adopters and foster carers; on changes to speed up and encourage adopters to lead the process of finding a suitable match with a child; and on changes to make it easier for prospective adopters to be temporarily approved as foster carers. I expect all those changes to come into force in June 2013, and there will be further announcements—I cannot go into them in detail until tomorrow—to speed up that process.
Other commitments include legislation to reduce delay caused by local authorities seeking adoptive parents who are a perfect or near ethnic match for a child, which my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) mentioned earlier, and acting on the family justice review recommendation to remove the adoption panel function with regard to a child’s adoption decision. That is also a duty for the judiciary, which is why David Norgrove’s review reforms are so crucial to ensuring that everybody is doing their bit to make adoptions happen more speedily, efficiently and effectively in the best interests of children.
The action plan announced new scorecards, the first of which were published in May, on adoption timeliness for local authorities. They are crucial in providing transparency on how local authorities are doing and in ensuring that we have a contextualised record. I recognise, as various hon. Members have mentioned, that there are more challenging children to be adopted. We want to make sure that they are not excluded from the process simply because it might take longer. That is why the adoption scorecards are contextualised and sophisticated, and not just raw targets and tables, which has been a problem in the past.
Following publication of the scorecards, officials met the councils identified as being of the highest concern. A real willingness has been shown by all areas to get the process working better.
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).