Thursday 5 July 2012
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Sixteenth Report of the Health Committee of Session 2010-12, PIP breast implants and regulation of cosmetic interventions, HC 1816, and the Government Response, CM 8351.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Anne Milton.)
I call the Minister. Sorry, I call Mr Dorrell.
I think my hon. Friend the Minister might need some time; she will respond to views expressed by members of the Select Committee on Health, and other hon. Members who have forsaken attractions elsewhere and turned up to this debate.
The Health Committee is grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for nominating this subject for debate this afternoon. Our report on PIP breast implants aroused considerable interest among those directly affected. That is hardly surprising, because it addresses an issue of major concern for more than 40,000 women who have received breast implants that were later found to be non-compliant with standards that everyone believed they met on the day the implantation took place. That has led to considerable concern among a large number of women about the health implications of that failure of an implantation into their body, and it also raises important policy issues that the Committee has sought to address in its two reports on the subject, to which the Government have sought to respond. We now think that the issue merits wider debate.
I will begin by stating relatively briefly how we arrived at this set of circumstances. The breast implants supplied were subject to European law and a European licence that was issued by the French regulatory authorities. I will not amuse the House by offering a French accent because, happily, the words in question are similar to their English equivalents: Poly Implant Prothèse, or PIP, is, or rather was, a French company that had a licence to deliver those products. In plain English, it was not merely a question of the company not complying with the terms of the licence. French regulatory authorities have acknowledged that fraud took place, and that falsified returns were made to the French regulators. However, not only did the breast implants supplied by PIP not comply with the regulations, but the company knew that at the time they were supplied.
The licence was issued and maintained by the French authorities, but in March 2010—the date is significant—the French regulator reported the existence of fraud within PIP, and stated that the implants that the company had supplied contained non-compliant silicon. As a result, the product was deliberately not the one that had been licensed for supply and use in human surgery.
There was then a long period—I intend to return to this issue—between March 2010 and December 2011 during which it was unclear to the Committee, as we undertook our inquiries, whether anything like a proper reaction was expressed by the French regulators or, it must be said, the regulatory system in this country. I will later return to, and dwell on some of the lessons to be learned from what happened in that time lapse between March 2010 and December 2011.
Before I consider the substance of those issues of concern to the House, I would like to complete the timeline. One might think that the announcement that there had been a fraud, and that non-compliant breast implants were being supplied, would have raised concerns and prompted somebody to do something about the matter in March 2010. As I said, however, nothing much happened until December 2011, when more or less out of the blue—at least as far as we could make out—the French regulator announced that it had decided that even though 21 months had elapsed, its concerns about the implants were now such that it recommended “precautionary removal”, as it is phrased. By Christmas 2011, the recommendation from the French regulator was that the implants should be removed forthwith—no, not forthwith; on a non-urgent basis.
Over 21 months, therefore, the regulator had gone from frankly not doing much about the issue to announcing, just before Christmas, that its concerns were such that there should be a precautionary removal of the implants. On the basis that nothing ever happens at a convenient time, that took place just as everybody was going away for Christmas, and my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State therefore had to deal with the issue during the Christmas holidays. During that period, the Government set up two inquiries. One was led by the medical director of the NHS and focused, rightly, on the priority subject, which was the risk to patients and the proper response in terms of patient care. The other inquiry was led by the Health Minister in the House of Lords, Lord Howe, who looked at the policy lessons from the point of view of the regulators.
The Committee heard evidence in February and issued its report in March. The Government responded, and we now have the question of the lessons to be learned, and the Committee’s response to the Government’s position. The Government have accepted the Committee’s recommendations in the report, with two important exceptions. I wish to talk about those exceptions, and then deal with one or two other issues raised by the Committee on which it would be useful to hear the Government’s current thinking.
The first issue concerns what happened between March 2010 and December 2011 and the lessons to be learned. In the Committee’s view, one of the most important lessons was that we were surprised, to put it extremely mildly, that implants can be put into the human body and no record kept of the fact. That seems to have implications that go way beyond the issue of breast augmentation. An implantation into the human body can take place and there is apparently no regulatory requirement on any of the professionals, service providers or providers of the devices to keep a record of that.
During the various inquiries held immediately after the Christmas recess, the Secretary of State said that the Government were minded to move back to the previous rather weak requirement for a register, but I hope that when the Government consider the subject, they will look not just at the context of breast implantation, but at a much wider question. It seems to me that if a medical device is being implanted into a patient, the burden of proof is on anyone who wants to argue that a record should not be kept. The PIP implant saga perfectly illustrates why there should be a record of which patient received which product on which day. It is so that a proper response can be organised if the product is later found not to have complied with the regulations on the day on which it was implanted, as in this case, or if the product is later found not to be desirable for any number of reasons that may not be known about on the date of implantation.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the idea of a register of implants—not just breast implants, but implants in general—has been raised before, but was rejected, sadly, by Minsters in a Labour Government because officials for some reason resisted the idea, and that it is important that we push forward with that common-sense idea?
I agree. In fairness to officials, it was not so much the officials who were resistant in the days of the previous Government, as I understand it; the issue was that the requirement was relatively weak, and many patients were resistant. However, for reasons that I have given, it seems to me that it should be part of the regulatory structure within which medicine is practised that implantations into the human body are the subject of very secure records.
I agree with everything that the right hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he agree with me that there is a cultural problem, in that “regulation” has become a dirty word in modern politics—not recently, but over a number of years—and that the words “European regulations” are not so much dirty words as a total obscenity that people only whisper in dark corners of this place? The European regulations were inadequate, and we did not have the guts to insist to the professions and the people making money out of this that they needed a bit more regulation.
I have some sympathy with what the right hon. Gentleman says. I do not think that we should be frightened, when the burden of proof is discharged, and when it is necessary, of ensuring that there is an adequate regulatory structure that is proportionate, not over-burdensome, and effective at delivering proper safeguards for, in this case, patients. I have been here long enough, Mr Rosindell, to know that if I want to get any political audience to be opposed to something, I have merely to describe it as European and the job is done. In this case, as it happens, I do think that there is a strong case for an effective European regulatory structure, so that the suppliers of proper medical devices, of which this country is a major supplier, do not have to go through 25 different regulatory structures to supply those products in a unified market.
The Chairman is getting twitchy.
The Chairman, of course, is neutral in all matters when he is in the Chair, but I propose confining myself to the substance of the argument, Mr Rosindell, which is that there is a strong interest in this country, from a commercial point of view and, more importantly, the point of view of patients, in ensuring that there is a proper regulatory structure that provides for an audit trail of where products have been implanted. I would be grateful if the Minister could respond on the Government’s current thinking on that subject.
The Committee was concerned about the regulatory response during the 21-month period. With great respect to the Government response, I am sure that, seen from the helicopter, people were doing their best, but if 40,000 women are told in March 2010 that, in effect, an implant in their body is the subject of a fraudulent regulatory failure, and no response is made to them as patients for 21 months after that, that is not, in my view, an adequate regulatory response. An important part of the reason why that happened was that there was not an adequate information base to allow people to follow up, and to take the necessary action vis-à-vis those patients.
That is the first set of issues that arise from this saga. The second set of issues is more precisely about the decision-making position of the Government, and the NHS offer to patients who received the faulty, substandard implants. The Committee said, and the Government agree, that there is a clear moral and legal duty on the clinics that provided the implants to remove them and replace them at their own cost. Everyone, including the Government, agrees on that.
We also said as a Committee that we welcomed the fact that by the time we held our hearings, the Government had made it clear that the NHS was the back-up provider. If there was a faulty implant and no one else was going to remove it, the NHS, as a public health authority, needed to be able to be that back-up provider of a proper public health response, with, of course, the important proviso that if the NHS removes a faulty implant in those circumstances, it has a perfect right to recover the cost from the people who put it in. Again, there is no argument there.
The argument arises when a patient who has received a substandard implant has it removed in those circumstances by the NHS, but wants a replacement implant. Currently, the patient will need to have surgery to have the faulty implant removed, be discharged, and go to a different hospital on a different day and again take the risks—they are relatively small risks, but they are risks none the less—associated with any clinical procedure in order to have a replacement implant put in place. The reason given for that—I am very familiar with these arguments because of my background in the Department—is that the NHS cannot do a single operation where part of it is at public expense and part of it is at the individual’s expense. In the jargon of the NHS, there cannot be top-up charges for a single procedure.
I understand the NHS theology that lies behind that, but I recoil from the consequence, because what it says to the women—it is a relatively small number of cases—is that they have to go through surgery twice. There is a cost implication to that, but much more importantly, there is a clinical implication that I would have thought any doctor would recoil from. I urge the Minister to think again, and to think more imaginatively about the application of the familiar doctrine, which no one in the House would disagree with, that we should not have top-up charges in the NHS. I urge her just to think about the practical implication for the woman in those circumstances. I hope that the Government will find it possible to think again on that issue.
I would like to talk about a number of other issues that have arisen following our report. They mainly arise from the final report of Sir Bruce Keogh on the clinical consequences of this product failure. First, we welcome—I certainly welcome—the fact that Sir Bruce has finally confirmed what the women themselves told us: these products have a significantly higher rupture rate than other products supplied for the same purpose. I make the point to emphasise that if we had had a proper register, that would not have been a secret. That would have been clear in the evidence, and it should have led to a challenge to the terms of the licence as soon as that evidence became available. However, the evidence was initially debated and has only now been confirmed, two and a half years after the licence for the product was removed. Evidence is there when we look for it; we need to make certain that it is there in a proper way.
The second issue is Sir Bruce’s finding that there is no evidence of long-term clinical harm being caused by ruptures. I have not mentioned this yet, but the Select Committee organised a web forum. We are very grateful to the dozens of women who contributed to that forum to make it clear that the views that we had been expressing were supported by those most directly involved. Many contributors to the forum simply do not accept that there is no clinical consequence from a rupture of the implants. Sir Bruce recognises the short-term clinical consequence, in terms of soreness, but argues that there is no evidence of long-term clinical consequence. The women most directly affected are not convinced that that is true, and we can all understand why. That is the finding of Sir Bruce’s group now, but what process will we set up to ensure that it is not a once-and-for-all finding? It is one thing for it to be a judgment at a point in time, but if evidence that changes our understanding comes to light today, tomorrow or the day after, we must be clear that the finding is subject to ongoing review.
My third question concerns the clinic licensing system. I want to read some of the contributions to the web forum. They pose a question about the clinic licensing system, which continues to allow clinics to provide this service—subject, as probably should be the case, to the clinic having a licence. One woman said:
“it took weeks for them to respond to any emails, even though I knew I had PIPs and had 4 of the symptoms which they stated on their website.”
That organisation continues to provide this service. Another respondent said:
“The clinic were very slow to respond. At first they answered the phone and dismissed my concerns saying there is no proof PIP’s are unsafe/no link with cancer. They then stopped answering calls at the clinic and calls diverted to a call centre”.
A third respondent said:
“I contacted the provider who told me as I had had the implants for over 10 years…there was nothing he could do”,
“they should be changed after 10 years. This was news to me as when I had them originally done I was told they would last…15–20 years”.
Those organisations still have a licence. I put it to the Minister that that is not compatible with the delivery of good standards. Every one of those accusations—and no doubt there will be many more—should be followed up by the regulator, and the performance of the individual clinic should be tested.
I apologise, Mr Rosindell, for going on slightly longer than I had intended. Finally, there is an issue that came to light in the Committee hearings that I would like to question the Minister on: the challenge for the medical professions, and the individuals responsible for and engaged in the delivery of this service. The service was delivered in clinics, but the operations were performed not by the clinics, the system, or the venture capitalist, but by a doctor in a surgery with a patient in front of them. Like all medicine, it was one to one, and, like all medicine, it is subject to regulation by the professional regulator—another form of regulation of which I am strongly in favour.
The challenge to the professions that deliver such services, whether in the public or private sector, is to show that the duty of care that the professional owes to the patient was properly discharged and enforced. I will quote again from the web forum to illustrate why I am not convinced that that happened, particularly in regard to the obligation that a clinician has to advise a patient on the consequences and implications of a procedure that they are about to undertake. A woman said that a nurse at the clinic that she went to
“told me that she could see no reason why I wouldn’t take these implants to my grave as they were so good.”
As not many women have such operations in their 80s, and as women these days live into their 80s, it seems unlikely that that was clinically appropriate advice to give. Another woman said that she
“was assured that implants never need to be replaced”.
Whoever gave that assurance was quite clearly in violation of their professional obligation to give good advice to their patients. Another said:
“My surgeon told me that PIPs were the best and most expensive available and that they should last a lifetime.”
The evidence available is that even if they were the best and most expensive available, which they were not, they had a lifespan of between five and 10 years. They certainly were not designed to last a lifetime, and no clinician should have given that advice to their patient.
In conclusion, this saga throws a very unflattering light on the professions and the regulatory structure in this part of medicine. It also raises questions that have application well beyond the world of breast augmentation surgery. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the questions that I have raised, because I suspect that the issue will not go away any time soon.
I concur with nearly everything that the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr Dorrell), the Chairman of the Health Committee, said and I congratulate the Committee on its thorough work. I was dragged into this matter simply because the Birkdale group had a clinic in Rotherham, not far from where I live. People phoned me directly, and I got more and more calls as I took an interest, so I tried to inform myself about the subject.
I am glad that the Chairman of the Committee made reference to what I thought was a distinct shortfall in compassion on the part of the Government and the Secretary of State in responding, “Nothing to do with us, guv, unless you had them put in inside an NHS hospital,” in other words, the 5% of the roughly 47,000 women who had the implants inserted as part of an NHS operation. The Secretary of State for Health is not the Secretary of State just for the NHS, but for the health of the country, so I thought a little more compassion and reaching out might have been needed, because the behaviour of some of the private clinics, including Birkdale, which had an operating base in my constituency, was, frankly, indifferent to the point of cruelty: demanding that money was paid up front, even for an examination, and then another huge fee for any kind of extraction, let alone a replacement operation.
This is about greed and lack of regulation. We are in parallel with a debate about banking in the main Chamber, and that, too, has some connection to greed and regulation. I understand that the Birkdale clinic performed some 150,000 operations over its lifetime at about £4,000 or £5,000 a go. We can work out just how profitable it was. Surgeons were flown in from eastern Europe to do 20 operations on the trot in a single day. That was happening not a mile from where I live. I did not know about it. The local NHS did not know about it, much. The council did not know about it. Local doctors did not know about it. I heard about it only when the crisis broke, so I am not in any way trying to be holier than thou.
We now know that in Britain about 47,000 women and their families are affected by the PIP scandal. It is not only about individuals, but the people around them, who have to live with a worried daughter, a worried mother or a worried grandmother. In their various reports, the British Government said that there is no significant risk to health for British women with PIP implants, yet other Governments take a different view. We should spend a little more time on comparative politics both in Select Committee reports and in our debates, and look at the approach of other Governments.
We might learn from the Food and Drug Administration in the United States, which took one look at the original PIP factory 11 or 12 years ago and simply banned the implants in the US. That is a worry for Europe; it is not a British point, particularly. The FDA said that under no circumstances should the implants be used in operations on US women, but we continued to allow them—when I say “we” I mean the whole EU. The reason is that they were the cheapest, at £150 in a £4,000 operation—QED, in terms of the profit to be made. Another country that banned them was Venezuela. I do not often have much good to say about President Chávez, but in this case perhaps he rendered the women of Venezuela some service.
What do we know about these PIP implants? They are six times more prone to rupture than other implants, and they contain industrial silicones that were never intended for human use and have never been tested on humans. Reports suggest that as many as 68 toxic chemicals and unidentified chemical compounds are in the mattress filler that is used in PIP implants.
We know why women have breast implants: it could be sagging breasts after babies, uneven breasts after mastectomies, and all sorts of psychological conditions. One of the most offensive things about this matter were comments in the press and from some hon. Members—on both sides; this is not a party political affair—suggesting that it is about vanity and cosmetic surgery, “It serves them right”. It is a woman’s decision, perhaps not always a wise one—as the right hon. Gentleman said—to have her breast opened up and something foreign inserted, and we should respect it. I am not sure whether we have not been just a bit scornful, especially in a profession still overwhelmingly dominated by men, despite the welcome presence of the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton).
Other countries have set up crisis funds to allow women to have substandard PIPs removed. Ministers in other countries say, “We are in charge of the nation’s health. Women’s health is important. Therefore, we will find the money to look after these people.”
As for the argument that it is somehow a woman’s fault, I have to say that when someone is drunk and gets into a car crash it is their fault, and when someone smokes too many cigarettes and gets lung cancer it is their fault, but the NHS does not shut the door to them because the injury or disease was somehow self-generated. We are a compassionate nation, but compassion was lacking in this case.
In France, the alarm was raised when 48 cases of breast cancer were found in women with PIP implants and two women died. I am sure that the distinguished medical experts among us today will point out that because women have breast cancer, because they die and because they have PIP implants those things are not all interconnected. None the less, there is cause for the concerns that were raised.
I am not sure that the British Government’s final conclusion in these reports is right. I repeat the right hon. Gentleman’s admonition that we should not say that this is the end of the day; the matter must be kept permanently under review. Because a judgment is made at one point in time, that is not the end of it. Let us listen to the women who have formed the PIP committees and taken up the issue, and keep collecting evidence from other countries in case we have to revise the current medical advice.
Some clinics, such as Birkdale, have closed. They have made their fortune, shut their doors and left the matter for someone else to sort out. Other clinics have opened under a different name to avoid liability. Others have made women sign disclaimers before offering them diagnostic tests or treatment. Some breast cancer patients with PIP implants have been on waiting lists for five months or more at NHS hospitals as the waiting lists get longer. Will the Health Committee look at the follow-up from the Government’s initial statements about getting money back from the clinics? I have no evidence that that has actually happened. It is important that Ministers do not announce that something is going to happen, and then not deliver it.
Women themselves should be at the heart of the debate. They have the great trauma of unexpectedly having to remove the implants at very short notice. They face physical, emotional and financial upheavals. Women are not sure who they can turn to. They need to trust the Government, but when the Government’s official line is that there is no evidence of harm, they just do not believe them. I wonder whether officials and Ministers have understood just how concerned women are.
GPs see their patients, but very few of them are experts on the impact that some of these devices can have on health. There is no official recognition of the symptoms that arise when a woman finds these things leaking into her body. She feels uncomfortable in her body. Some of the most distressing aspects of my short personal involvement were the e-mails and telephone calls from women saying, “What is happening inside my body? Nobody will tell me.” I certainly was in no position to tell them.
The Secretary of State made statements in December and January, but I am not sure that the clinics are abiding by their “legal and moral duty” to remove and replace the defective devices they have fitted into women’s bodies. Furthermore, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is reluctant to release all the precise details of the toxicology testing that has been performed. It is important that there is full transparency.
In conclusion, there is a case for a public inquiry. I really do not want to get into a debate on parliamentary and judge-led inquiries; that is not for this afternoon. I am possibly going a bit beyond the good first work of the Select Committee. We need an investigation of the commonly reported symptoms through patient reports and assessment of medical records, which underlines the right hon. Gentleman’s point that we do not adequately record such operations. The MHRA should release details of the toxicology testing on implants.
Will the Minister tell us what governmental or legal power the Department of Health has to oblige clinics who have fitted PIP implants to offer free removal and replacement or face losing their licence to practise? We need the Department to give us full statistics on exact rupture rates, and all breast clinics should be sent details about PIP breast implants. We need much clearer directives to the NHS and the private sector. Of course the MHRA should be obliged to have a register of every medical device fitted into a human body, detailing the serial numbers and the manufacturers, and we need public disclosure of the 68 chemical compounds found in PIP implants so far.
There are other technical points that the campaigners want answered, but I do not want to take up other colleagues’ speaking time. Women feel alone. It is a small number, but who do they turn to for help? Why did it take two years for an unannounced inspection of the PIP factory? Why has the MHRA not fully published all the details of the 68 chemical compounds said to be found in PIP implants?
Such requests for information are reasonable. As I said, this is not a party political issue; it could easily have happened under the previous Government. As the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), said, in 1994 my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) proposed more regulation of breast implants. Her Bill was rejected by the previous Government, and not much was done; if anything, the deregulation mania continued. We should learn lessons from that and try to find ways of sending messages of increased solidarity to the women, many of whom are still very worried about what was done to their bodies when they went in for these PIP implants.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank the Chairman of the Health Committee for this excellent report.
Let me touch on just four areas: putting patients first; the ethics of the industry; how we reduce the burden for the future because this is not the first time that we have had scares about breast implants; and the need for a register of all implants and an update on how that might progress.
Of course it is a tremendous relief that the expert group concluded in its final report that there is no evidence that PIP implants represent a materially greater risk to health than other types of silicone implant. However, the point is that PIP implants rupture much more frequently—six times more often—and when they do they cause severe local reactions in many cases. For that reason, many women will opt to have them removed. If their private clinic has gone out of business and the procedure is offered under the NHS, there is an issue about whether the NHS should then allow them to pay separately to have a private implant fitted.
The reality is that having an implant removed does not just result in a minor cosmetic difference to a woman’s appearance. There is a very significant difference in the appearance of the breast once an implant has been removed. For women who cannot afford a separate operation, there will be a devastating impact on their body image and the way that they feel about themselves.
Of course, we already have a precedent for top-ups and I take issue with the point in the report that top-ups cannot occur. Although I completely agree that as far as possible, we should separate private and NHS treatment, we recognise that in dentistry, for example, a patient can already pay to have a different type of filling and have a top-up in that way. The precedent is already there.
At the core of the issue must be putting the patient first. It cannot be ethically right to force women to go through a separate surgical procedure, with all the risks that go with having a second general anaesthetic; these are not simple procedures carried out under local anaesthetic. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that the NHS will uphold the overriding principle, which is that we put the needs of those women first, over and above the other principle, which we all accept is important; nevertheless, it must take second place in this instance.
Secondly, there is the question of who should fund this type of treatment in the future. As I have already said, this is not the first time that we have had implant scandals. Would it be reasonable to expect those who have cosmetic procedures to take out some form of insurance, because of the risk of clinics going out of business and to cover the long-term liability? Can the Minister say whether that is being considered for the long term, so that we do not find ourselves in this position again 10 years down the line, perhaps with other types of implants? There is sometimes a great temptation for clinics to declare themselves bankrupt, only for the same surgeons to set up down the road and for the NHS to pick up significant costs in the future.
Thirdly, let me turn to the ethics of the industry. I wrote an article for The Guardian on 2 January. I actually wrote:
“Perhaps women damaged by complications from oversized breast implants should take their cases to the General Medical Council and ask them to consider how those surgeons mutilating them…could in any way have put their safety first.”
What happened was that The Guardian, as a result of advice from its legal department, removed the word “oversized” without my permission. There is a distinction to be made. For example, a teenage girl may wish to go into the glamour industry; she goes to see a surgeon and has the size of implant that cannot put her safety first in the long term. There are ethical considerations, and we should not allow surgeons off the hook, because they are complicit in promoting what cannot be other than a damaging stereotype for women. They should reconsider the ethics because, as we have heard, these implants are not long-term implants. They have a shelf life and women will inevitably need to have them replaced on numerous occasions if they have them fitted as teenagers, or else they will need significant reconstructive surgery at a later date if they choose not to continue with the same size of implant.
The British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons and the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons both claim that they always put patient safety first, but I do not feel that that is the case when we see repeated examples of the type of practice that we have heard about on our forum; I will not repeat the quotes that we have already heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr Dorrell). In practice, there is a consistent failure to tell women about the long-term implications of having breast implants, and I want to see the General Medical Council investigate the entire ethical basis of the industry and issue some very firm guidance.
I close by raising the issue of a register. I hope that the Minister can update us on plans for the future, so that we do not again see women left at home—sometimes for weeks—suffering from extreme stress because they do not know whether the implant that they have had fitted is one of the implants that we are concerned about. A register would allow proper long-term monitoring of side-effects.
Thank you, Mr Rosindell, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr Dorrell), who is not only the Chair of the Health Committee but who was, of course, Secretary of State for Health in the Major Government. I think I can say modestly that I have been in Parliament long enough to remember him as an Under-Secretary in the Department of Health—at that time, of course, he was the MP for Loughborough—although I have not been in Parliament as long as he has.
I do not wish to repeat the remarks that were made earlier by my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend, other than to say that we are basically dealing with a French company—Poly Implant Prothèse, or PIP— that produced a defective product. It then used false documentation—my recollection is that it did so by registering in Germany; I think that came up in the Health Committee. The company was also using non-compliant silicone. My right hon. Friend also said that there was a period—between March 2010 and July 2011—when there was a lack of action. The Health Committee was certainly concerned about why my hon. Friend the Minister and our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health did not look at the issue earlier.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood has already given us the background, so I do not want to go into it further, but there are two types of issue to consider: first, the PIP implants, which are the defective products; and secondly, the wider issues.
Both my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes have mentioned the lack of a register, which is a fundamental problem. Without a register, we do not know the size of the problem. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Minister will refer to that issue in her response.
The second issue that really exercised me when the Select Committee was considering this topic was what I noted down as “the double jeopardy rule”—it is not quite a double jeopardy rule, but a woman will potentially need two operations if they have this problem. The NHS is looking to offer more patient choice and greater flexibility, and dealing with this issue is a good opportunity to provide greater flexibility. It makes absolutely no sense to have a surgeon remove an implant and then to have another surgeon at another time replace it with something else. First, I think it is clinically unwise; I do not know if my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes wants to comment on that. Secondly, it is certainly bad value. Thirdly, it means that the patient will have a much higher level of stress. I would have thought that statistically the probability of complications must be greater if a patient has two operations rather than one.
The third issue that I want to raise is advertising. The advertising for these products appears to be misleading, to say the least. We have heard that there is a failure to mention the inevitable requirement for removal of the implants. It is not only the surgeons or the promoters of the operation who should make patients aware of that requirement, but the advertising, which should carry a warning at the bottom.
The next point about advertising of these products is that I think a lot of it is targeted at less well-off people—a market in which people might not necessarily apply their minds as extensively as people in some other socio-economic groups might do to the consequences of these implants. A culture, or belief, has grown up around implants that they will enhance careers and make a person more attractive, which may not necessarily be the case.
Taking things a stage further, when teenagers are encouraged to have implants there is an absolute duty of care on those who promote them to explain to those concerned that although they may not be very full in the front at that age, if they have children they will naturally expand and have no need for implants. Furthermore, if they reach that point of having children, they may not want the implants that they received earlier. We need to think particularly about the market involving younger people.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood and the Committee agreed to the web forum on patient experiences, which was a very good exercise. Select Committees should consider using such an approach regularly in the future. We had responses from 194 women, and there were 279 posts. That widened the base of the pyramid of knowledge that the Committee had to reflect on, provided a greater degree of certainty about where things are going, and gave us understanding.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes touched on the long-term consequences of ruptures and the fact that that issue has not been fully recognised in the responses so far. Last week we had a presentation in private by distinguished academics from the university of Leeds. One point that came up was that if the silicone leaks, it can find its way into glands and lymph nodes. I cannot believe that that is a desirable impact for any patient. It defies logic to suggest that if there is a foreign body in a part of someone’s body there will be no complications or implications; and if there are none now, where will we be 30 or 40 years down the road? As a Member who has represented a constituency with a declining coal mining industry, I deal even now—30, 40 or 50 years down the road—with cases of emphysema and other mining-related diseases. What will happen after that length of time with the issue we are discussing now? We simply do not know. We cannot tell.
Dr Hardy and Professor Holliday at Leeds made two recommendations, which I am not going to claim as my own, and which merit serious consideration. The first is that all advertising should carry the risk rate. I am thinking both of advertisements and the agents’ recommendations to the client. There should be an absolute requirement to explain complications, and the fact that implants will have to be replaced at some time. The failure to tell patients that implants must, whether faulty or not, be replaced at some point, came through on many occasions in evidence.
The second point was also an excellent one: the contract that the patient forms should be not with the agency, which could fold, but with the surgeon, who is covered by a form of insurance, and tightly regulated. Any issue in the future would be with the surgeon himself. That would give us a much greater degree of accountability and make the regulation much more simple.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick), and, indeed, all the hon. Members who have spoken. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr Dorrell), who has worked very hard on putting together a good Select Committee report, championed the cause diligently over the past few months in Parliament, and helped to bring about this debate.
One thing that came across from the remarks of all right hon. and hon. Members, but which was highlighted particularly by the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), is the concern, which unites the House, for the women who have been exploited and, in many cases, treated badly by some private sector cosmetic providers.
The expert group appointed by the Department of Health published its report on 6 January and concluded that there was no causal link between PIP implants and cancer, and on 1 February the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks published its report on the matter, which reached similar conclusions. Although there may not be a risk of cancer, we know that PIP implants are not of good quality, and their rate of rupture is six times greater than that of other implants. It is because of that inferiority, and the concern and worry that it has caused many women, and because of wider issues about the cosmetic surgery industry, that we are having this debate; and those are the issues that I want to talk about.
To me, the primary issue is duty of care. NHS providers, whether traditional ones or private providers commissioned by the NHS, have a duty-of-care relationship with their patients, whether women or men. Clearly, in the cases that we are considering, the cosmetic industry has not shown that duty of care because of the contractual relationships that women were in.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood highlighted the problem of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency failing to keep a sufficiently vigilant eye on PIP or other implants, and I do not want to dwell on that. However, the cosmetic industry’s wider role, and the governance and culture of not only plastic surgery and cosmetic clinics, but the surgeons and others in the industry, are key to how we improve—how we take matters forward and make things better for women in the future.
On the duty of care, all the women whom we are talking about are patients. If an invasive procedure is performed on someone’s body, they must be considered a patient—someone to whom a duty of care is owed. It does not matter if the procedure is done by the NHS or a private provider outside the NHS, as in the cases we are considering. That duty of care should exist. Yet with the cosmetic industry, because there is a contractual relationship, it is clear that that duty of care does not exist and that many of the women have been exploited, potentially, and misinformed by the cosmetic industry. The relationship has not protected women or acted in their best interest.
I hope that my hon. Friend would agree that the mere existence of a contract between the provider and the patient does not in any way undermine the duty of care that the one owes the other. As I said, a surgeon who provided the service without giving proper advice to the patient would be in violation of their professional duty of care to the patient, and the provider would not be providing the service required by the contract, either.
I fully agree. Unfortunately, although a contractual duty should inherently also be a duty of care, in this case there has been poor medical practice and poor medical accountability on the part of some surgeons in a number of clinics—a point highlighted by my right hon. Friend, and by the right hon. Member for Rotherham. Some providers have not behaved with the kind of responsibility and care for their patients that we would expect of anyone offering a service, particularly one involving invasive bodily procedures.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood was right to highlight the doctrine of top-up charges, because women have, in some cases, been forced to have two operations in order to have their implants replaced with better ones. That is not only unacceptable medically, but also on the basis of the duty of care. Given that many cosmetic surgery clinics that work under a contractual arrangement cannot claim back money under their insurance when the data do not necessarily show a risk from PIP implants, they are not in a position to offer the replacement procedures without going bankrupt. Although they have a moral duty to offer those procedures, they are not always in a financial position to do so, and that goes to the heart of the matter.
When people take up private procedures outside the NHS, and a contractual duty is in place, there needs perhaps to be a levy on the private providers to ensure that when things go wrong, other providers—either in the private sector or the NHS—can ensure that things are put right. I would be grateful if the Minister could reply on that suggestion of a course of action that the Government could look into. We want our primary concern to be the care of the women affected, and there are providers that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood says, consider themselves to have a duty of care, but are, because of the financial consequences, perhaps unable to put things right. We might, therefore, need a levy or some kind of insurance to safeguard against such a situation occurring again.
I want to touch on the governance of the plastic surgery industry. The professional responsibility of plastic surgeons and everyone involved in the industry should be no different from that in other parts of medicine, but we have seen some very bad practice by some cosmetic surgeons. Earl Howe’s report states that under General Medical Council guidance and rules for good governance, there is a duty on doctors and other medical professionals to have good auditing and record keeping, but far too often, data on the care of the women affected have not been properly kept. Good medical records do not exist, and there has been a neglect of duty by some medical professionals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) pointed out, that is something for the GMC to look into, and I am sure that the Royal College of Surgeons will look into that in further reviews.
We need to ensure that regardless of whether a procedure is carried out in the NHS or the private sector outside the NHS, good medical practice as regards audit and record keeping is always maintained. When things go wrong with the cosmetic industry and private operators outside the NHS, it is always the NHS that picks up the pieces, and NHS doctors therefore need to be put in the best position from which to look after the patients.
Finally, the exploitation of women in many of these situations has been talked about widely. The Committee has heard of many cases of women having gone in good faith to cosmetic providers and having received at best inducement, and at worst poor information, at the moment of consenting to an operation. The basis of all medical treatment is informed consent. A patient should understand the consequences of any operation, be fully availed of the facts, and together with a medical professional, make an informed decision about the right way forward and about how they should be treated. Far too often, the evidence has shown that women do not give informed consent and are not fully availed of the facts. That is bad medical practice and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood pointed out, it is an issue for the cosmetic industry. The Royal College of Surgeons and the General Medical Council should investigate surgeons who have not done things in accordance with good medical practice, as set out by the GMC.
We need to consider the wider consequences, and to move the cosmetic industry from a purely contractual arrangement towards one involving a duty of care. We need to consider ways of properly looking after women when things go wrong and, given the doctrine of top-up charges, we must ensure that money is available to look after women. Perhaps there is a role for a levy on private operations. We must also ensure much greater accountability of medical professionals and better record taking, so that we can have proper patient care, which is what we all want. I am pleased to have taken part in the debate, and I look forward to the responses of the Minister and the shadow Minister.
I congratulate the Health Committee on a thorough piece of work. There has been some debate in recent days about the effectiveness of Select Committees in interrogating the facts, but the report shows how effective they can be. I also congratulate the Backbench Business Committee. I have noticed that in this Parliament we have been a lot better at addressing, in a timely fashion, issues that are of concern to our constituents, and we must thank the Committee for that.
For the more than 40,000 women concerned, this has been a period of fear, anxiety, uncertainty and distress. I have observed a tendency to address health matters in a dry, managerial manner, but there are thousands of frightened women out there who feel isolated and do not know what to believe. The Opposition accept the advice that the Government have been giving on the basis of the evidence that they have, but we are disappointed that they are not providing more help to the women affected. In addition to the general confusion, unnecessary anxiety was caused to thousands of women over Christmas and the new year. It is simply not enough for the Government to say that private providers have a moral duty to their patients; there must be, as has been said, practical action on that duty of care.
Christmas was a troubling time. On 23 December, the Secretary of State said:
“we have no evidence of a link to cancer. We have no evidence of toxicity, we have no evidence of substantial difference in terms of ruptures of these implants compared to others”—
a statement that was proved wrong—
“So we don’t have a safety concern that would be the basis for the routine removal of these implants.”
By 31 December, he had announced that the NHS medical director, Professor Bruce Keogh, would carry out an urgent review of the situation.
The problem is that months later, the websites of some of the private providers still had the Health Secretary’s original, somewhat consoling, statement. The shift of emphasis during that period caused uncertainty and allowed private clinics to rest on the earlier statement, rather than acknowledge the fact that an urgent review had been called for. We found that many women were unable to access their records, and that some had to pay up to £50 to access them. In the case of what was intrusive surgery, it is unacceptable that women could not access their records as a matter of routine. The uncertainty was unnecessary and women are still unhappy about it.
Women who have PIP implants are still concerned about the Government response. As the Minister will be aware, many of them are calling for a public inquiry, and I must do them the justice of putting that demand to her. Among their concerns is that the Government have received advice that there is no problem with the implants and that they are not a threat to health. Among the things that women want is an investigation of common reported symptoms in patient reports, and an assessment of medical records, which has already been referred to. They want the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency to release details of the toxicology testing done on the implants. Everyone present will be aware that they also want clinics that have fitted PIP implants either to offer free removal and replacement, or to face sanctions, such as losing their licence.
The women’s biggest concern, however, remains the health aspect, after the trauma of unexpectedly having to remove the implants. Let us bear in mind that this is not like chiropody; this is invasive surgery. Women’s breasts and reproductive organs are a particularly sensitive matter of concern for them. Ministers have spoken about the issue as if women who purchase cosmetic surgery were purchasing cans of beans off the shelf and should, therefore, observe the rule of caveat emptor—let the buyer beware. The fact is that any sort of invasive surgery is not like purchasing beans off a shelf. The issue of duty of care by individual practitioners and by clinics—and even by Government Ministers when they talk about the issue—should be at the forefront of our debate.
These women have faced this trauma, and many of them still feel that they have nowhere to turn with the symptoms that they continue to experience, even after the implants have been removed. The official Government line remains that there is no evidence of harm, but women are anxious that that should not be a once-and-for-all conclusion on the physical and medical consequences of the implants, and that the ongoing research and information should be kept under review. In such situations, we all know that it can take many years to find out what the real health issues are.
The women are calling for the publication of exact rupture rates, and for the cosmetic clinics to have sufficient information about PIP breast implants. Above all, they are calling—this has been echoed by both Government and Opposition Members—for a register of medical implants, an issue that was first raised by Labour MPs in the 1990s. Members of all parties have raised the issue, and the time to address it came long ago. We cannot possibly help to rectify problems if we do not even know who all the women, men and children who had the implants are. That is a basic requirement, and I hope that the Minister will say that the Government intend to move speedily towards addressing that.
Apparently, 68 chemical compounds have been found in implants so far. The women are concerned about the evidence showing that the substance has the capacity to migrate across organs. They are concerned that, if it can migrate across membranes, there could even be implications for chemicals crossing to the placenta. It is not good enough for Ministers to say, in the summer of 2012, that there is no evidence of harm while not keeping what is happening under review.
Women want to know why the UK is one of the only countries not recommending routine removal. They want to know, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) has said, why it took 25 months for an unannounced inspection of a PIP factory. Why did the MHRA not test the products for sale in the UK? The women want to know about the 68 chemical compounds. They have noted the Health Committee’s view that Sir Kent Woods’s statement that there was “no evidence of harm” was misleading, and they want to know why Ministers have not retracted it.
On the role of private clinics, we know that some of the leading cosmetic surgery clinics are ignoring the Government’s appeal. We know that one such clinic, Transform, which used PIP implants on more than 4,000 patients, has said that women will have to pay £2,800 for their removal. We know that the chairman of the Harley Medical Group, which has 13,900 patients with PIP implants, has said that he will pay for the cost of the new implants, but only if the NHS pays the bigger bill for surgery. This is not a satisfactory state of affairs. It reduces the purchase of invasive surgery—even if it is invasive cosmetic surgery—to the status of a mere purchase of some grocery product from a supermarket. The women think that the Government have not been empathetic to their situation or fulfilled their duty of care, let alone ensured that the private clinics fulfil theirs.
There is a strong feeling among our constituents that the clients of those private clinics have been let down. If I may say so, that shows the importance of regulation in relation to large-scale private sector involvement in health care. It should not be the case that women get a better duty of care from health service providers than from private sector providers, but that is their experience, whether it applies to getting their records or to being charged for the removal of the implants.
In view of the reluctance of some private health-care providers to foot the bill to replace the implants, what action will the Secretary of State take to help women who are unable or cannot afford to access their records? Has the Secretary of State considered regulation, or some kind of levy, so that private companies, now and in the future, can cover the cost of removing defective devices? Will the Government’s recommendations be kept under review?
The issue has caused a great deal of personal concern, fear and anxiety to tens of thousands of women. The uncertainty in the run-up to Christmas was unnecessary and we are anxious that the Government do not just take a once-and-for-all view of the health consequences of the implants. We are also concerned that broader issues exist in relation to the regulation of not just cosmetic surgery, but cosmetic procedures such as botox. Ministers need to consider those issues.
We live in an extraordinarily body-conscious era. Recent figures show that unprecedented numbers of girls under 16 are having breast reduction surgery, and that unprecedented numbers of teenage girls are having breast enlargement surgery. That is not because there is suddenly a whole new range of associated medical problems, but because of the pressure on women of all ages with regard to their body and their appearance, and, frankly, because of the exploitative and predatory activities of some people in the cosmetic surgery industry. I hope to return to those broader issues on the Floor of the House.
In closing, I say to the Minister that there are tens of thousands of women, some of whom are in the Public Gallery today, who do not feel that they had the clear advice they should have had in the run-up to Christmas; who do not feel that they have had the support they should have had; and who do not feel that the Government are taking their position sufficiently seriously. I hope that she will have answers to some of the questions asked by my hon. Friend and me this afternoon.
Sadly, as I only have about five minutes left, I will not be able to answer all the issues that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), raised.
On a point of order, Mr Rosindell. My understanding is that the debate can continue at the discretion of the Chair.
Yes, indeed that is so. I intend to let the debate run on a bit longer to allow the Minister to respond and Mr Dorrell to have his two minutes towards the end.
Thank you very much, Mr Rosindell. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick). I was not aware that we were allowed to run on.
I am grateful to the Liaison Committee for choosing the topic for debate and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr Dorrell) for the thoughtful way in which he introduced it. I concur with the statement made by the shadow Minister about the usefulness of the Backbench Business Committee. It has allowed us all to raise issues of interest to our constituents in a much more timely fashion.
I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s position. My right hon. Friend described much more eloquently than I could the events that led up to what has happened. The stress that the women concerned have gone through has been immense. I am disappointed that the shadow Minister was slightly party political in her response. The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) said that the issue is not very party political. I gather from the debate that the matter has been on the stocks since 1994. It is time for us to shine a light—possibly this issue has done so—on cosmetic surgery and, indeed, on interventions. We need to make sure that we get our house in order.
The women concerned believed that they had received breast implants containing silicone that was safe and of medical quality. They certainly did not expect to discover that they had been, in some cases, cruelly and cynically deceived and that their interests had been ignored through the fraudulent activity of the manufacturer. Over the past few months, I have met a number of women with PIP implants. They all feel, as do I, that the right lessons should come from what has happened. In fact, although the women concerned certainly do not want to be in the position they are in, they are keen to know that the Government will learn some lessons.
We should start with the science. I assure the shadow Minister that, of course, as with anything, research and review of practice is ongoing. One does not just carry out a review of research and end it there, because research continues. It is extremely important, and not only in this country, that we continue to learn lessons from ongoing research on a number of issues and that we remain open-minded.
Within weeks of the discovery of the fraud, the MHRA commissioned tests to find whether the material in PIP implants was dangerous. Because of legal difficulties over similar tests in France, the MHRA was the first agency in a position to publish the results of that testing, in September 2010. For obvious reasons, the tests were based on a limited number of samples, but the conclusions at that time were relatively reassuring. More tests were then carried out in France and Australia during 2010 and 2011. The results were broadly similar to ours, apart from some inconsistencies over a test for skin irritation.
Towards the end of 2011, the French regulator began to notice that more people were reporting that their PIP implants had ruptured. There was a report of a rare form of cancer in one woman with a PIP implant. The French cancer institute looked at the data and decided that there was no excess cancer risk associated with PIP implants. Nevertheless, as a precaution, the French Government decided to advise all women with PIP implants to have them removed. A number of European countries followed suit.
We, in the UK, decided that an expert group chaired by the NHS medical director should look at the evidence and advise on appropriate policy for the NHS in England. The expert group delivered an interim report within a matter of days; it advised that the evidence at that time did not justify removing all PIP implants as a matter of course. Instead, the group advised that women should speak to their specialist and come to a decision individually. However, it also noted that the evidence base was not perfect, and said that it would collect more information and advise further in due course. I understand that the Health Committee supported that decision.
I am sorry if the shadow Minister feels that anybody from the Government has not appeared sympathetic. It is certainly not a view I have heard expressed. It would be hard not to sound sympathetic when people have been the victims of what, as I said at the beginning, were the cruel and cynical actions of a fraudulent company. I have met a number of the women concerned since then. I hope not only that lessons will be learned, but that any Government procedures will ensure that responses are more timely.
On the evidence of toxicological damage, one of the things that the women most directly affected are seeking is more precise detail about the evidence that has been used by the MHRA to reach its conclusions. Will the Minister clarify whether that is to be published or whether there is a constraint that prevents its publication?
My only hesitation is that there might be constraints that I know nothing about. However, I can see no reason why not if the evidence has been assessed. The evidence will, almost by definition, be in the public domain because it will be in papers that have been peer-reviewed and probably published. There should therefore be no reason why it should not be available to all women.
My right hon. Friend raises an important point: it is not just about what one does, but about what one is seen to do. Any restriction on access to information raises suspicions in people’s minds. All those women have already had a bad experience—they had their surgery and were reassured by surgeons and staff at the organisations they went to—and already feel that they have been deceived. Therefore, it is more important than ever to make sure that they have access to the information that we have access to.
As I said, Sir Bruce’s group has published its final report, which was informed by detailed tests on the silicone used in PIP implants and by large-scale data on the rupture rate of the implants. It draws on what doctors found when they removed some implants. It was painstaking work, and three main conclusions stand out. It is important to reiterate that research—data—should always be under constant review.
First, the evidence supports the fact that impurities in silicone gel do not pose a threat to health. That fits with the conclusions of tests on the gel carried out in the UK and other countries. Secondly, there is clear evidence that the rupture rate for PIP implants is significantly greater than for other silicone gel implants on the UK market. Thirdly, although some ruptures are associated with local clinical reactions, in the great majority of cases, that was already apparent before removal of the implant. So-called silent ruptures detected by scanning, but with no outward signs or symptoms of a possible rupture, are not in general associated with significant clinical reactions when the implants are taken out. The group therefore concluded that PIP implants are clearly substandard—there is no doubt about that—but that if the implants are still whole inside the body, there is no evidence of an increased risk of clinical problems.
I stress that that is not what the Government say; it is what an expert group says. I am happy to send anybody who wants it the list of who made up that expert group. It is important and it is about confidence in what we are doing. Ministers are not scientists. It is important that we rely on and get the best possible scientific advice, and that we remain vigilant in scrutinising that advice.
[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair]
My hon. Friend might be about to move on to this, but did the expert group consider the points made about two operations for people having problems with implants? She will probably deal with that in a moment, but she will forgive me for nudging her.
I need no nudging, but I take my hon. Friend’s intervention in the friendly manner in which it was intended. I will move on to that.
The group reiterated the earlier advice that women with evidence of ruptured implants should be offered removal, and women with no sign of rupture should talk to their specialists, discuss the pros and cons of removal and decide with their doctor the best way forward.
In January 2012, in line with the interim advice, we published the NHS offer: women who originally received implants from the NHS are entitled to a consultation and a scan if appropriate. Then if the woman and her doctor so decide, the NHS will offer to remove and replace the implants. From the start, we made it clear that we expected private providers to match that offer. Many have done so. In fairness and for balance, I point out that some have been very responsible. I hesitate to mention some, as the list will not be conclusive, but BMI Healthcare, Linea Cosmetic Surgery, Nuffield Health, Ramsay Health Care, Spire Healthcare, The Hospital Group and Transform have been responsible and stepped up to the plate. It would be a shame if this debate cast negative views on all those involved in the plastic surgery industry, but I will come to some of the other points raised before I finish.
Where a private provider has gone out of business or fails to meet its moral and legal obligations, the NHS will provide a consultation, a scan if appropriate and removal, but not normally replacement, of the implants. That policy remains in place today. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) wanted me to go on to the question whether the policy should be varied. As has been reiterated today, the Select Committee on Health suggested that women should be able to pay a fee for new implants to be put in place by the NHS during the same operation in which the old ones are taken out. I completely understand why, and I have discussed the issue at length.
There are several points. Allowing a mixture of NHS and privately funded care within a single operation risks undermining a founding principle of the NHS that care is free. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) about co-payments in the NHS for dentistry, glasses and so on—I could go on. I believe that Bevan resigned within two or three years of the formation of the NHS, on that very point. The issue of co-payments goes back a long time. However, I feel that this situation, although complicated, is different. If the NHS were to carry out replacement breast augmentation, it would become responsible for all the aftercare, including possible future replacements. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes and my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood mentioned, the rupture rate is significant anyway. Breast implants do not last a lifetime; it is unlikely that they will.
Does the Minister accept that if someone has a gold filling, for example, for which they paid a top-up on the NHS, if that gold filling fails, the NHS will still treat them, rather than expecting them to take responsibility for having the gold filling replaced in the private sector? There is a precedent. Again, I make the point that we must put women first in this situation and not subject them to two operations.
The NHS is free at the point of delivery on the basis of clinical need. The point is that the NHS might not put in a gold filling. I would hate to stray from the issue of co-payments. When I was on the Health Committee, we considered co-payments, and there are numerous areas of inconsistency. My hon. Friend’s point is well made, but—
I am sorry, but I am going to have a go at my hon. Friend the Minister, and not on the subject of gold fillings. Her point is that if a provider removes the faulty implant on the NHS and then goes on to provide a paid-for replacement of the implant, the NHS somehow becomes responsible for the ongoing maintenance of the replacement implant. However, that assumes that we consider the provider hospital as the NHS for that purpose. We all know that NHS hospitals provide private care. The NHS does not accept responsibility for that private care. If the patient pays in an NHS hospital for care, it is private care, and the NHS is not responsible for paying for follow-on care. If a patient who happens to be in a private NHS hospital pays for a new implant and that half of the procedure is private, I genuinely do not understand why the NHS would suddenly become responsible for it on an ongoing basis.
That may be a subject for a Backbench Business Committee debate on co-payments and what the NHS is and is not responsible for. The difficulty is—
Because the Minister mentioned Nye Bevan, I feel obliged to intervene to say that there is no more vigilant defender of an NHS true to Nye Bevan’s principles than me. However, when women will be faced with two separate invasive operations, we ought to make an exception to the rule.
I thank the shadow Minister for her intervention. I accept the strength of feeling on the issue in this debate. The clinching argument is that if the NHS were to offer what is in effect subsidised breast augmentation for non-clinical purposes—I stress the use of the word “clinical”; it is not that cosmetic surgery is unavailable on the NHS, but that it is available if there is a clinical need for it—
Will the Minister give way?
If we can bear on Mr Benton.
He is very generous. Can I inform the Minister and the House that today is the 64th birthday of the NHS? Why not give a birthday present to those lovely ladies and say that the NHS will look after them before its 65th birthday? Come on, Minister, take a decision. They will not kill you on the box. We will talk to the Secretary of State for Health and sort it out.
Order. Before the Minister replies to that intervention, I point out that there is another debate to follow this one. Try to keep interventions to a minimum. The debate has gone well past 4 o’clock.
We have tried Mr Benton’s patience. I thank the right hon. Member for Rotherham for his suggestion. I am sure that the Secretary of State will listen closely to what I say next. Changing Government policy on the hoof during a debate—
—gets you into the Cabinet.
It might indeed. It might also be a career-limiting move.
The surgery must be based on clinical need. I cannot see any way out of the dilemma. It is difficult, and as I said, the strength of feeling in this debate will have been noted.
Moving on, I know that the Health Committee has criticised the MHRA for not finding a way to communicate to women with PIP implants, preferring instead to use its central alerting system, the national media and specialist associations as its main channels of communication. We should recognise that that approach clearly did not work well, although it was possibly understandable at the time. Since then, active social networking sites have developed. It is right that both the Department of Health and the MHRA need to find better ways of communicating.
I finish by talking about some of the wider issues that have been raised, specifically Sir Bruce Keogh’s ongoing review. It is a wide-ranging review of all aspects of the regulation of cosmetic interventions: the devices and substances used, the practitioners involved and the way the organisations work. It will pay particular attention to the marketing and promotion of cosmetic interventions, and the need for fully informed consent. The review is expected to report by March 2013.
My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) raised the issue of informed consent. Nothing could be closer to my heart. I have heard some dreadful stories from women who went in for breast augmentation and, literally two or three minutes before they were about to go under anaesthetic, somebody rushed in with a form saying, “We’ll lift your eyelids or give you a facelift at half the price if you sign here now.” Absolutely outrageous. A lot of women, even if they were informed, did not feel informed, and that is what matters. It is not good enough just to tell people. It is important that the surgeon, and all those undertaking the procedure, are satisfied that the woman, or indeed anybody else having any sort of surgery, is fully informed.
There is information about lists of medical devices. It is worth putting on the record that the EU is currently revising the regulations on them, and looking at medical devices.
On the number of substances that were found in PIP implants, we have to be very careful and stick to science. All sorts of chemicals are found in hip replacements, knee replacements and all the other things that can be implanted for medical reasons. The important point is whether they have any impact on health.
Insurance was mentioned. It will be looked at. Professional standards are two words that are rarely heard. In reviews after bad things happen, we rarely talk about professional standards. It is extremely important that we do talk about them.
Issues were raised about loss of licences and the need to keep records so that we can make timely, prompt contact with people who are affected when things go wrong, as they inevitably will from time to time. It is important that we do everything beforehand to ensure that they do not go wrong, but that if they do we have access to the women. That is why we need Sir Bruce Keogh to look at that work, and clinical licensing systems and compulsory insurance too. I am very grateful to the Committee for its many helpful suggestions, all of which will be taken forward by Sir Bruce’s team.
I end with a note about some of the women who have taken the time to talk to me. It is very hard to understand the distress caused when terrible things happen, particularly when people have previously trusted the organisation, and maybe the surgeon, that they were dealing with. Betrayal of trust is a dreadful thing. It can be awful if they go back and there is nobody to help them. In some instances, women have gone to their GPs, and even their own GPs have cast inappropriate value judgments on them and not been as helpful as they should. For many women, we cannot turn the clock back, but we can make sure that this does not happen again.
There are two minutes for a winding-up speech, if the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr Dorrell)wants to speak.
I propose to be extremely brief, Mr Benton. We have already trespassed on the time of the following debate.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for the way she responded to the debate. I hope that she will continue to think about the challenge of what my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) called “double jeopardy”. I hope that she will take forward work on a proper register, because that is the best way of making certain that things are handled better in future.
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.
With regard to ethnicity, does my hon. Friend agree that race should be no more important than any other factor in making that match? It certainly should not be used to deny a child a loving, caring, stable home.
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.
Will the hon. Lady clarify, given her comparisons, whether she is referring to the adoption of a baby or an older child?
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)).