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Forced Adoptions

Volume 602: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered forced adoptions.

Forced adoption is necessary; sadly, there are circumstances in which it is right that the state removes a child from their birth parents. I have seen cases in my constituency that made me think, “Thank goodness that there is a system of adoption, that there are good people working in social services who intervene and that there are foster parents willing to care for children. Most of all, thank goodness that there are loving adoptive parents who offer loving homes to children who tragically were not born into one.”

But I have also seen cases that made me feel a little uneasy. I have met tearful grandparents who are about to see their grandchild for the last time and are adamant that social services never seriously considered them as alternatives to adoption. I have often listened to those who feel that their families have been broken up by what they regard as a cartel of family courts, family lawyers and social services. Taking a child from their birth mother by force is a very big deal. Those who make such decisions need to be accountable, but currently they are not. The family courts are shrouded in secrecy. There are too many cosy vested interests operating in ways that are simply not fair or just.

I am sure the Minister will tell us that we need to increase the number of adoptions. In a sense, I do not disagree. I am sure he will point out that there are almost 70,000 cared-for children in this country, and he will make a sound case when he says that surely more should be adopted. Superficially, that is a powerful argument. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the life chances of children who are adopted, rather than cared for, are vastly improved. Should we not, therefore, seek to adopt more? That is great, but if the unintended consequence of setting targets is that there is pressure to break up families who might otherwise stay together, I think that is wrong. Many of those 70,000 cared-for children are young people and teenagers. We need to ensure that the pressure to adopt does not lead to infants being removed from mum or toddlers from granny and grandpa.

It is reassuring to think that the adoption system and the family courts are presided over by dispassionate, wise experts who are always right—if only that were so. The Court of Appeal, in a judgment only two years ago, expressed real concern about the

“inadequacy of the analysis and reasoning put forward in support of the case for adoption”.

Criticism does not come much more strongly than that.

We like to think that expert witnesses must be right. Surely they weigh up all the evidence; after all, they are paid to do that for a living. But the truth is that many of the social workers and medical experts who testify on behalf of local authorities do so anonymously. Often, those unnamed experts give evidence about families they have never met and situations of which they have no first-hand knowledge. There is the notorious case of Fran Lyon, who I believe has, in effect, fled to Sweden as a result of the heavy-handedness of our family court system. Solicitors represent families in particular court cases, but the local authority against which the family wants legal advice is often also a long-term client of those solicitors. It is all a little too cosy. The Law Society might be happy with those arrangements, but others might worry that there is a legal cartel in the family court system.

I could make lots of cheap points by highlighting individual examples of injustice, but I am not going to do that. One does not need to look too far on Google or in the tabloid newspapers to find outrageous examples of injustice. The powerful case against the family court system and the adoption system at the moment comes not from individual cases, which rightly make us feel uneasy, but from the aggregate data. I submitted freedom of information requests to every local authority in England and Wales to see what proportion of care orders were converted into adoption orders. I will give hon. Members just three examples.

In the London borough of Enfield, over a six-year period between March 2009 and March 2015, there were 96 care orders, 93 of which were converted into adoption orders. That is a 97% conversion rate. In north-east Somerset, over a one-year period in 2013-14 there were 16 care orders, 15 of which were turned into adoption orders. That is a 94% conversion rate. In Reading, over a one-year period in 2013 28 care orders became 22 adoption orders. That is a 79% conversion rate.

It all seems pretty automatic: if someone gets a care order, they lose their kids. The staggeringly high rate at which care orders are converted into adoption orders suggests that justice is not being done. Once the legal process begins, almost nothing—not legal advocacy, not the circumstances of the family, not the willingness of loving grandparents to raise their grandchildren—can stop it. It is a done deal; it is a fix.

It is urgent that we make the process and the family courts much more open and transparent. Of course, being a cartel, they are not going to like it. Cartels tend not to like transparency. Hon. Members who were in the House in 2009 will remember a famous example of a cartel not wanting openness and transparency. But those are not arguments against openness and transparency; they are the arguments of a cartel.

Jack Straw, the former Minister, came up with some excellent proposals to ensure openness and transparency in the family court system. Unfortunately, his civil servants got their claws into the proposal, and the legislation that was passed was a watered-down measure that did not achieve what he set out to do. Sir Humphrey prevailed. The law does not belong to the lawyers; social services do not belong to social workers; and the family courts are not the fiefdom of a self-referential legal profession. I hope that Sir James Munby, who is leading a review, is prepared to take on the vested interests and has the courage to open up the system and break open the cartel.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. Nobody would deny the importance of safeguarding children who are at risk, but there is huge inequality in the system. Parents do not get the advocacy and support they require to be given a fair opportunity to show they can support their children. Instead, they have to go through a forced adoption.

I absolutely agree. The hon. Lady makes an incredibly powerful point. It seems that articulate, highly educated people who have access to information are able to fight off the system, but people who do not have access to information and are not as eloquent as lawyers tend to be trampled over by the system. Many of the most tragic cases I have come across in Clacton involve people whose love for their grandchildren is as strong as anyone’s, but they are just not very articulate and are therefore trampled over by the monstrously unjust and unfair system.

To ensure that even inarticulate grandparents get justice and a fair hearing, we should adopt nine proposals. We need to recognise the importance of balancing the necessity of some degree of privacy with the need to shine a spotlight into the family court cartel. These nine proposals strike the right balance.

First, we need to promote the more extensive use of special guardianship orders, which allow a child to be made a ward of an extended family member, such as their grandparents, and allow close supervision while, in many cases, enabling the family member to raise their grandchild. Secondly, placement and adoption order proceedings should be open to the media on the same basis as other family law proceedings. Thirdly, I want the introduction of a presumption to allow reporting of family court proceedings on an anonymised basis—in other words, references could be made to child A and mother B.

Fourthly, I would like to mandate the publication of all judgments, those from district judges on application, except perhaps where a presiding judge seeks and obtains a contrary order from the president of the family division. The default should be to publish judgments. Fifthly, we should mandate that all local authority witnesses, especially social workers, be identified by name and position held. Sixthly, we should require, on application and subject to administrative costs, all expert witnesses to list the previous court cases in which they have given evidence.

Seventhly, we need to publish on an anonymised basis all statements of case, skeleton arguments, case summaries and other documents prepared and exchanged by the advocates in a case. Eighthly, we need to go far beyond the watered-down Straw proposals and allow all media access to expert reports on an anonymised basis, with reporting restrictions imposed in exceptional circumstances only. Finally, we should allow unrestricted access to expert reports to academics for peer review on the condition that any research papers are anonymised.

The nine proposals are sensible and recognise the need for some degree of privacy. At the same time, they will ensure that the family courts cartel cannot continue to preside over the monstrous injustices that we never get to hear about. I hope that the Minister will take some of the suggestions on board. I am encouraged that the ideas seem to be gaining some measure of cross-party support. I hope that we can build a consensus around them and, on the basis of Sir James’s proposals, bring about legislative change.

Order. May I confirm that the hon. Lady has notified both Mr Carswell and the Minister? Are they happy for you to speak?

Yes. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I have just come from a meeting organised by the Who Cares? Trust, for which the Minister does amazing work. It supports children who have spent a lifetime in care, so it is pertinent that I am here today to make some comments. I congratulate the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) on raising this issue, which is long overdue for debate in this House; it has had far too little exposure, and I hope that this debate will be the first of many.

Hon. Members from both sides of the House will have received in their mailbags heartfelt pleas from desperate families who have been caught up in the system. Such pleas often appear wholly incredible on first reading. It is only when hon. Members have themselves had experience of the system or get to know an ordinary family affected by it that they can ever fully comprehend what can happen to the families caught up in it. Few hon. Members will be aware that, in this country today, the state can remove a child from the care of its parents without consent and when no harm of any kind has occurred.

Before I first came to this place, I sat on fostering and adoption panels. For the first few years of my involvement, I was completely unware that the natural parents in the cases we were considering were contesting the removal of their children with increasingly despairing battles against the state. It struck me that many children had been removed because a professional believed a child might be at risk of future harm. That risk is not confined to neglect or physical harm; it includes emotional harm.

During the cases heard by the panel, natural parents were repeatedly depicted as having mental health issues, drug and alcohol problems and complex family histories. Those human defects would be elaborated upon in such a way that it became unthinkable for panel members to challenge the depiction of the parents as unfit and incapable of parenting. If we ever questioned whether the parents could, with the right support, offer adequate care in future, we would be reassured with familiar phrases such as, “The child’s timeline could not wait for the parents,” “The parents were unco-operative with social services,” and, “The parents failed to prioritise the needs of their child.” The focus throughout was on finding fault in parents, rather than assessing whether their child was happy and thriving in their care. I can say from my family’s personal experience that there is no doubt that the process is one of the most stressful that any family will go through. Their voice counts for nothing. Their evidence is always doubted. There is nothing that they can say to prove their innocence.

A short debate cannot do justice to the seriousness of this issue, its consequences for children and families or the wider impact on society. Children taken from their parents, as I have just heard first hand, suffer the trauma of separation, rejection and loss. They also lose their identity, wider family, home, school, friends and all their connections. A childhood spent in care leads to permanent labelling, which is exactly what one young person said to me in the past half an hour. We discover that children who leave the care system are also labelled as potentially unfit to parent their own children. I have come across many cases in which care leavers have lost their child to the care system because they were deemed to have inadequate parenting capacity owing to their childhood spent in care. That sums up the situation.

The families affected are too often the most disadvantaged and least able to defend themselves from the powerful machinery of the state. I have often thought that if Charles Dickens had heard the stories and met the families whom I have met, he would have written a book about it—I am sure that George Orwell probably did. Despite forced adoption being the most draconian power that the state can exercise, the subject is hidden away, leaving families voiceless and impotent against officialdom.

I hope that we will have further opportunity to discuss the matter fully, and I hope to secure a Chamber debate. I thank the hon. Member for Clacton for his work in this area, because he has taken the first step, and I encourage him to continue to fight this cause. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House are slowly becoming aware of the matter through their casework, but they are often unable to take up such cases because they are already in the legal system. The only way in which we can represent such families is to be a voice for them here. It is an incredible privilege that we have a platform on which to raise the issues that the world does not get to hear about. I also thank the excellent Minister for Children and Families for being here. He is all too well aware from his extensive experience of the family courts of the difficult and sensitive issues and of the impact on children and their families. I know that the subject is of utmost importance to him and his Department.

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) on securing this debate. I recall all too vividly our early comradeship on the then Children, Schools and Families Select Committee between 2008 and 2010. Our paths have gone in slightly different directions since then, but I have always looked on in admiration of his crusade to bring greater transparency to public life, and this is another area to which his attention has been drawn.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for her contribution. I know that she, too, will pursue the subject personally in the months and years ahead.

The debate gives me the opportunity to set out the Government’s position in an important and sensitive area for which I have had the privilege of being the Minister responsible for the past three and a half years. The first principle on which the system of family justice in England is rightly based is that children live with their family wherever possible.

When concerns about a child are raised with a local authority, the law under the Children Act 1989 is clear about looking at what support or help a family might need to enable the child to remain with the family. Achieving that objective includes work not only in the local authority, but with other agencies.

As hon. Members have recognised, however, where a child remains at risk of suffering “significant harm”—we could have a long debate about a definition—the local authority may apply to the courts to take a child into the care system as a looked-after child. Many tens of thousands of children are either a child in need or on a child protection plan and should be receiving support services from the local authority and others to ensure that they have every prospect of remaining with their family. The vast majority of such cases never get anywhere near a court.

When cases do go to court, parents should have legal representatives who are appointed to support them—for which legal aid rightly remains available—to ensure that their views are heard and that evidence presented by the local authority can be challenged. I spent many years doing that myself.

In addition, applications made to the court are subject to separate scrutiny by the child’s guardian, who must submit his or her own analysis of the evidence. On many occasions in my experience, a child’s guardian was the one who was able to give a robust challenge to the local authority’s case on behalf of the child. That is an important part of providing an independent view of the veracity of a case before any decision by the judge. The court’s paramount consideration is, of course, the welfare of the child, which is known as the paramountcy principle.

Where it is decided that it is not possible for children to remain with their parents, the law is clear that local authorities must consider placing a child with relatives—including grandparents, thousands of whom do an excellent job of supporting and bringing up their grandchildren —and friends before considering other permanency options. We have supported that approach through means such as the advancement of family group conferences, at which families are brought together at a much earlier point in their contact with local authority services, so that they may come up with a plan to keep the child in the family and to enable the family to have the support necessary for a sustainable situation. We have announced the extension of shared parental leave to grandparents, so they are in a better position to put themselves forward as potential carers.

In some cases, however, despite the best efforts of the family to provide an alternative, it is in the best interests of children to be placed in foster care or to be adopted. I know from my family’s experience about the huge difference that fostering and adoption can and does make to children who have had a difficult start in life.

The key is always what is in the best interest of the child. That is why we have not, as the hon. Member for Clacton suggested we have, set targets for the number of adoptions—there is no chasing of adoption targets, which simply do not exist. Every decision must take account of a child’s individual circumstances and need.

In discussing adoption, it is important to remember the context. Without giving too long a history lesson in the few minutes I have remaining, the Adoption of Children Act 1926 was the first time that adoption was made legal in this country, but that was after the United States of America, Canada, Australia and many other countries had already done so. In 1968, 25,000 children, a large number of whom were babies, were adopted under adoption orders. In 2014, about 5,000 children were adopted, of whom 230 were under the age of one, according to the latest figures. Therefore, only 16% of children leaving the care system were adopted, with the majority returning to their own families after a period in care.

That illustrates, first, that societal shift has meant a corresponding shift in the role of adoption and, secondly, that the outcome being pursued for children is not relentlessly that of adoption irrespective of what is in their best interest. Many children are now achieving permanence through many different routes, such as supervision orders, what used to be residence orders and are now child arrangements orders, or special guardianship orders, which I will come on to.

The Adoption and Children Act 2002 makes it clear that children cannot be adopted without the consent of their parents unless the courts are satisfied that the welfare of the child requires such consent to be dispensed with. The circumstances in which a court might take that view can be that it is satisfied that the parents cannot be found, that the parents are incapable of giving their consent, or that it has reason to believe that the welfare of the child or children requires parental consent to be dispensed with. That is a stiff and strict test, which Lady Hale reiterated in a recent judgment.

England is not alone in having an adoption system that includes adoption without parental consent; so, too, do Germany, Italy—in what is known as a special adoption—Sweden, Norway and 24 other European countries. The recent announcement by the Prime Minister was all about ensuring that where adoption is in the best interest of the child, there is an early placement for the child, to form the bonds that are so important as children grow up and as they are starting to be nurtured by their adoptive family.

If the system works as wonderfully as the Minister claims, how does he explain the Karrissa Cox case? Surely he accepts that, despite what officials tell him, it does not work as well in practice as in the theory in his Department.

As the hon. Gentleman understands, I am not in a position to comment on individual cases, but I was going to say—this was drawn out in the Re B-S judgment by the president of the family division—that there is still some inconsistency in the practice of social workers. Evidence submitted to the courts in support of such a draconian step—the severing of the legal tie between children and their birth parents—might not be of the quality and depth of analysis required for the judge to make such an important decision.

The president of the family division made that point throughout the judgment, so we need to concentrate on the quality of social work. The hon. Gentleman knows that we have a big reform programme under way to improve the knowledge and skills at the core of social work. We want judges to have clear opportunities to question the evidence supplied by social workers and to know that it is of sufficient quality to give them confidence about making a good decision.

On special guardianship orders, it is also important to look at the numbers and the rapid change in their role in permanence decisions on children in care. The hon. Gentleman suggested that we should encourage more special guardianship orders, but, as he knows, since their inception in 2005, we have in fact seen their use increase year on year. Since 2011, the number has in fact doubled.

Yes, the increase is a positive development, but it is also apparent that the changes in the use of special guardianship orders have led professionals and others—reflected in some research by Jim Wade—to be concerned that special guardians are not always being assessed or supported appropriately or consistently. Some children are being placed with family members with whom they have no relationship or, in some cases, whom they have never met. We have seen a substantial rise in the number of babies under the age of one leaving care under an SGO from 130 in 2010-11 to 620 in 2014-15. Such a position was not envisaged at the inception and crafting of the special guardianship orders, which is why we are reviewing whether the assessment—important for a child placed under an SGO—is of the veracity that it needs to be and whether support is available should a child be placed in such a placement.

I only have 40 seconds left to refer to the hon. Gentleman’s points about the lack of openness of the courts. It was helpful to hear him recognise the fine balance to strike in such matters. The media have been allowed access to most family court hearings since 2009. The need for openness in the family courts, however, has to be balanced against the need to protect the privacy of the child. We know that children are concerned about the details of their case being made public, which is why the judge has the power to order reporting restrictions if deemed necessary to safeguard the identity of the child. Going beyond that requires careful consideration.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the president of the family division is consulting on the matter, and we look forward to his response, so that we may see what more we can do to ensure confidence in the family justice system.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.