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Volume 578: debated on Monday 24 March 2014

Major reforms in the Children and Families Act 2014 will help to speed up the legal adoption process for children, support quicker matching and ensure the earlier placement of children with foster families who may go on to adopt them. We have also implemented a new adopter approval process and, in 2012-13, the number of adopters was 34% up on the year before.

I thank the Minister for his reply and welcome improvements that have been made to the system, but may I draw his attention to a Canadian couple who have been trying to adopt a child from north-east Lincolnshire to whom one of them is related? The process started in December 2012 but has still not been completed, and the child is now three. If the complications have arisen because the couple are from abroad, can anything be done to speed up the process?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that some adoption cases take far too long. The average time from care to placement is 22 months, which is why we have streamlined the approvals process and introduced regular scorecard data to show local authorities’ timeliness with adoptions. It is also why we have put more than £200 million into the adoption system to try to rip out unnecessary red tape and ensure that everyone keeps their efforts firmly fixed on children who badly need stable homes.

Adults who become special guardians face the same difficulties as parents who adopt, yet receive less support. My experience is that overburdened social workers are more likely to pursue a special guardianship order because the process is less intensive, but sometimes that lack of rigour leads to breakdown. Will the Minister try to bring the processes for SGOs into line with those for adoption so that children are protected by arrangements that are appropriate for them?

Of course, any special guardianship order must be signed off and approved by the court in the same way as a placement or adoption order. There has been a significant increase in the number of SGOs throughout the country in recent years, which is why we have commissioned for the first time proper research not only into the prevalence of the orders, but into who is taking them forward and what the breakdown rates are, as well as what is available to ensure that children who find themselves in such permanent situations get the support that they need. If the hon. Lady wishes, I will be happy to talk to her about that further.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his astonishing record and success on expanding adoption, but may I echo the comments of the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) by saying that there is still more to be done to speed up the process? One of the easiest ways of determining where the blockages in the system are is to compare neighbouring authorities that have similar socio-economic bases, but very different adoption rates. We must get out the message that speed matters when dealing with young children.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we must bring as much transparency as possible to the adoption process, which is why we have introduced the scorecard data and a national adoption register that is more open and available to prospective adopters. It is also why we have put such a strong emphasis on ensuring that local authorities’ artificial barriers do not get in the way of children finding a loving, stable family home, if adoption is right for them. I welcome his support for what we are doing but, of course, we must continue to exert pressure so that all the 6,000 children who are in care and waiting to be adopted this very day get the opportunity that they deserve.

I also welcome the improvements, but may I remind the Minister that, in England alone, 16% of all children put up for adoption are black, Asian or from the ethnic minority communities, and that adoption still takes three times longer for a black child than for a white child? What steps is he taking to ensure that more prospective parents come from the ethnic communities and that that difference is brought to an end?

The right hon. Gentleman is correct to raise that issue, of which I am conscious from the statistics that he shared with the House. That is why we have made it clear—not only through the Children and Families Act 2014—that although ethnicity is an important consideration when matching for adoption, it should not be the single guiding principle that determines whether prospective adopters take on a child with a different ethnic mix from theirs. It is also why we are helping to fund local authorities, in partnership with independent fostering agencies, to examine how they can recruit more widely across our communities so that we ensure that we have a good cross-section of people coming forward to adopt.

We need to make people aware that some of the myths and barriers that they think prevent them from adopting do not exist. We want more people to come forward, so we should do everything that we can to encourage them to do so.