Every child deserves a happy and fulfilling childhood, including those who cannot be brought up by their birth parents. To ensure that for the many thousands of children every year waiting to be adopted, the Education and Adoption Bill will increase the scale at which adoption services are delivered by introducing regional adoption agencies to work across council boundaries. That will help to provide a greater pool of approved adopters with whom to match vulnerable children successfully into loving and stable families.
I welcome my hon. Friend and neighbour’s interest in this important issue. In 2013, we set up the first ever national adoption advice and guidance service, First4Adoption, which to date has had more than 416,000 of what I am told are called “unique users”. The NHS website also has information on all the options to consider in the circumstances my hon. Friend describes, and makes specific reference to adoption. This is a very sensitive issue and we need to tread carefully. I am happy to discuss it further with my hon. Friend to make sure we get the balance right.
I thank the Minister for visiting Holmer Lake primary school in Telford earlier in the year to hear about the excellent child safeguarding work being done for year 6. With increasing numbers of children entering the care system, and with rates in my constituency significantly above the national average, what will the Minister do to ensure that all alternatives to adoption are fully explored before children are put up for adoption, resulting in permanent family break-up?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her election; I am pleased to hear that my visit was not only helpful but did not prevent her from getting over the finishing line.
A key principle of the Children Act 1989 is that children are generally best looked after within their families, save where that is not consistent with their welfare. That was reiterated in the Children and Families Act 2014. Of course, where concerns arise it is right that the local authority takes the appropriate action, but the point of having an independent court system is to ensure that that is proportionate and that in children’s upbringing their welfare and their best interests are the paramount consideration. That should remain at the heart of all the work we do with vulnerable children and I am happy to work with my hon. Friend to achieve that.
Despite what the Minister says, local authority cuts have had disastrous consequences for children’s social care services. Ofsted is now reporting that independent reviewing officers are so stretched that poor planning and delays for the most vulnerable children are going unchallenged. What will the Minister do to defend the service from further cuts?
It is wonderful to see the hon. Lady back. She was extremely vocal on these issues in the previous Parliament, and very effective in raising them to the profile they deserve. They are often missed at local, as well as national, level. The truth about children’s social care is that, at a time when it has been difficult for local councils, good decisions have been made to protect spending on children’s safeguarding. That is something I hope they will continue, while considering how they can be more effective and efficient in delivering those services. That is one of the reasons why the adoption Bill, which the House will soon be discussing, considers how they can work more closely together to achieve better services for children wherever they are from in the country, so that we have greater consistency everywhere.
The Education and Adoption Bill will presumably mention adoption, but will it contain provision for improving the quality of fostering, residential children’s homes and kinship care, which in the past the Minister has agreed are incredibly important opportunities for children? This is about finding the right way forward for children, not necessarily adoption for all.
The hon. Gentleman is right that, whatever the route to permanency a child has, we must ensure they have the right support and that the best decisions are made in their interests. The Bill, which we will be discussing in the next few weeks, will deal with the post-decision issue and ensure that we can access a wider pool of adopters to get children matched more quickly. At the moment, we have over 3,000 children in care waiting to be adopted, half of whom have been waiting for more than 18 months. We need to address that, but I agree that we need to do better to ensure that foster children and those with residential or kinship care arrangements get better deals.
I remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Will the Minister comment on the Government’s intention to expand the outsourcing of children’s social care services to third-party providers involved with children in the care system and adoption? He has just announced that they will no longer be regulated and inspected by Ofsted. How will he ensure quality of care for these particularly vulnerable young people?
I pay tribute to the role that my hon. Friend has played in keeping these matters fairly and squarely at the top of the national agenda, but we have not just announced that. These services will still be inspected. In the past, I have alluded to the social work practice in Staffordshire that was outsourced by the county council and which was inspected by Ofsted and received a “good” rating.
We want to ensure the best possible services on offer to children across the country, and we should not get too tied up in thinking about delivery and who will be ensuring the services are the best they can be. Let us get quality at the heart of everything we do and make sure that that is what we inspect.
I welcome the Minister back to his post. I had entertained the idea that we would swap places—but what will be will be. I am pleased he has retained this portfolio and I genuinely wish him well for the future.
Will the Minister give an assurance that nothing in his adoption proposals will have an adverse impact on smaller voluntary adoption agencies, which often specialise in finding families for harder-to-place children—a group the Government say the proposals are designed to help?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to his post. He and I have an interesting electoral history, but I see he managed to increase his majority at the last election, so he is doing better in his own constituency than he managed in Crewe and Nantwich in 2008.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We have an array of extremely competent, professional and dedicated voluntary adoption agencies across England and the wider United Kingdom, and we need to ensure that they are fully part of the new adoption landscape that we are creating. I made that point when I spoke at the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies conference only last week. We will make sure that they are central to the vision going forward.